YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Eating Smart

Undecided About Okra? Cotton's Cousin Is a Nutritional Bargain

March 27, 2000|SHELDON MARGEN and DALE A. OGAR

If you're like us, you're always looking for new ways to incorporate vegetables into your diet and even find new vegetables to try.

Okra used to be one of those things you either grew up eating or never tasted at all. In the South, it is a staple of Creole cooking and is one of the main ingredients in gumbo.

Depending on which history books you read, okra (which is botanically related to cotton) probably originated in Ethiopia and was brought here by West African slaves or by the French who colonized Louisiana. In either case, this smallish green pod is quite unique in taste and texture.

Okra is also quite a nutritional bargain. It's a good source of vitamin C, folacin, some B vitamins, magnesium, potassium and calcium. It is also high in dietary fiber (more than 5 grams in 3 1/2 ounces). All of this for only 38 calories in a 3 1/2-ounce serving.

It contains a natural thickening agent (an unpronounceable, sticky substance that oozes out of the cooked vegetable). This makes it great for soups and stews, but can be a turnoff if you're eating okra all by itself. However, if you cook it quickly, it will not get too gummy.

Okra is grown in warm states such as Florida, Georgia and Texas, and is available fresh year-round. It is also widely available in canned and frozen forms, which work fine in stews and soups but lack some of the crispness of fresh okra. In the market, look for small pods (3 inches or less) because they will be younger and more tender. Once okra matures, it gets fibrous and tough. The pods should be clean and fresh, and snap crisply when broken in half. Stay away from any that are hard or discolored.

If the pods look fuzzy, wipe them with a damp towel. If you are going to cook them whole, take a tiny slice from the end (do not pierce the internal capsule) to minimize gumminess. Then cook them quickly until just tender. The same is true of adding okra to a cooked dish in which you want the okra to stay crisp. Don't add it until the last 10 minutes of cooking time. If you are adding okra to a sauce or serving it in a soup or stew, just cut it into slices and let the goo do its thickening work.

Fresh okra is easy to cook:

* You can blanch whole pods in boiling water before using them in a salad or stir-frying.

* To serve okra cold, cool it in a bowl of ice water. This takes no more than three or four minutes.

* To boil okra, put the pods into about an inch of boiling water for five to 10 minutes or until tender (but crisp). If possible, don't cook the okra in a pot made out of cast-iron or aluminum. The okra will turn dark and while this is harmless, it isn't very appetizing.

* Microwaving isn't much of a timesaver. A pound will take about six minutes in a covered dish. Rinse the okra, but don't dry it. You don't need to add any extra water.

* Steaming also works and takes only three to six minutes. This will keep the pods crisp.

One of the most popular ways to serve okra is to saute it with onions, garlic and tomatoes. Just use a tiny amount of oil and cook for three to five minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

Okra is said to taste like a cross between eggplant and asparagus. Anything you would do to either of those vegetables can also be done to okra. Here are some other suggestions:

* Try it as a side dish by serving steamed or boiled okra with a drizzle of lemon juice and a shake of black pepper.

* Make a Southern-style rice pilaf (known as a pilau) by combining stewed okra and tomatoes with rice that has been partially cooked, and then simmer the whole mixture until the rice is fully cooked. You can then add seafood (like shrimp or crab meat) or maybe even a little spicy sausage.

* You can also create a multicultural dish by taking this African vegetable and adding it to Indian curries or sauteing it with Mexican chiles and salsa.

* Any soup, stew or chowder can benefit from okra, and it even works as an appetizer with salsa or any kind of dip that you would normally use for vegetables.

* How about an okra salad using blanched okra marinated with onions in a nice vinaigrette dressing?

Your imagination is the only thing limiting your use of okra. Just be sure that you don't sabotage it completely by yielding to the temptation to deep-fry it, which probably tastes great but adds a lot of unnecessary calories from fat.


Dr. Sheldon Margen is a professor of public health at UC Berkeley; Dale A. Ogar is managing editor of the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter. They are the authors of several books, including "The Wellness Encyclopedia of Food and Nutrition." Send questions to Dale Ogar, School of Public Health, UC Berkeley, CA 94720-7360, or

Los Angeles Times Articles