Good Ol’ Okra
If you happen to be traveling the back roads of Alabama the last week in August you’ll certainly want to make a stop at the Okra Festival held every year in Burkville. Neighbors will taste one another’s fried okra and rich gumbo, and you can buy loads of it cheap as chips right off the farm. There’ll be blues singers and okra inspired arts and crafts for sale, too.
Barbara Evans, festival coordinator writes, “Okra is the people's vegetable…grown in places where there is still a sense of community. If it is hot enough to grow okra, you can't rush around at high speed. You've got to slow up and pick the okra!"
Just up the road a bit from Burkville, and yet worlds away, lies another community with an affinity for okra. In the dwindling Sephardic community of my father’s birthplace, Montgomery, Alabama, the remaining Sephardim are tightly bound together in large part through the traditional dishes from our beloved Isle of Rhodes; dishes like “bamia,” a flavorful stew of okra, lemon, garlic and tomatoes.
I grew up hearing my relatives share family news and recipes in fluent Ladino and chat over the meal in English with a southern drawl. So it is no surprise to sometimes find us enjoying our bamia with cornbread and fried chicken.
Bamia made its way from its native Africa to Rhodes and throughout southern Europe and the Middle East by the 13th century. It was destined to become a staple in every country hot enough for it to thrive.
Okra first arrived in the US in the 17th century through the African slave trade. The native Indians of Louisiana discovered that adding okra to seafood and vegetable stews made them thick and hearty. It is just this thickening agent that gives okra such a misunderstood and maligned reputation.
At first encounter one might shun the prickly pod for being gummy, slimy and mucilaginous, yet it is those very qualities that have made okra so important to southern and Sephardic cuisine for centuries. All too often we dismiss what we misunderstand and miss out on the perfect gifts Hashem is offering us. When properly prepared, okra’s texture is soft like eggplant, the flavor similar to asparagus and its tiny white seeds add a delightful appeal. It is also laden with too many health benefits to miss out on.
University of Wisconsin nutritionist Sylvia W. Zook, Ph.D, rates okra’s high fiber content, similar to flax and psyllium, as having no equal among food fiber that feeds the good bacteria (probiotics) in the intestinal tract. Unlike high fiber grains which can irritate or injure the intestinal tract, okra's mucilage soothes. It also binds to excess cholesterol and toxins in bile acids and assures them an easy passage out of the body.
In addition to fiber, okra touts an abundance of vitamins A, C, K, B6, thiamin, riboflavin, and folate. It’s a good source of calcium, magnesium, manganese, niacin, iron, phosphorus, zinc, copper and an impressive store of potassium. All this for only 25 calories and less than 6 carbs per serving. How’s that for a nutrient rich super food?
If I haven’t inspired you to pack your bags and head down to Burkville for some okra art and nutritious country recipes, at least I hope you’ll give okra another look at home. I’ve included a Southern Chicken Gumbo that we’ve been known to serve on Friday nights for a taste of down home Southern cookin.’ And try family-tried-and-true recipe for velvety Bamia; it’s a dose of soul food, Sephardic style.
Renee Chernin lives with her husband, David, in Jerusalem’s Old City where she writes and cooks on her forthcoming cookbook, Cooking for The King, the book of Torah insights, recipes and cooking tips designed to bring majesty to the mundane. Get a glimpse of her essays and recipes on thekosherchannel.com
SEPHARDIC OKRA IN TOMATO SAUCE
Plump, unblemished, bright green pods 2 to 3 inches in length will be tender and not stringy when cooked. Store in the refrigerator and use within a day or two to ensure freshness, flavor, and nutrients. If slicing, always do so just before adding or they will ooze and you’ll loose the smooth texture. Frozen is acceptable, do not thaw before using in your recipe.
1 pound fresh or frozen okra, trim tough tip from fresh okra
3 tomatoes, coarsely chopped
or 1 (14.5 ounce) can chopped
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
3 tablespoons olive oil
juice of one lemon
1 tablespoon sugar
¼ cup water, plus
1 teaspoon salt
1. In a large skillet with a tight fitting lid, combine all ingredients. Bring to a boil, lower heat, cover and simmer 20 minutes. Uncover, add more water, ¼ cup at a time, as needed to maintain a stew-like consistency. Do not stir. Continue to cook, adding water as needed, 30-40 minutes until okra starts to fall apart. Remove from heat and cool slightly.
2. Arrange okra on round serving platter in a wheel pattern, with the small ends at the center. Spoon any tomatoes remaining in the pan over okra, or mound in the middle of the plate as shown.
Makes: 4-6 servings
Can make ahead
Active time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 1 hour
SOUTHERN CHICKEN GUMBO
Today, if you encounter an okra dish in England, it may be called Lady's Fingers. In the Caribbean you might enjoy a soup containing okra called Kallaloo. The word gumbo is the African name for okra. On these shores, native American Indians applied this name to their rich and hearty stew, now synonymous with Creole cooking. This recipe can take a while to make but it freezes well and I’ve included some timesaving steps* that don’t sacrifice on flavor.
2 pounds chicken thighs
2 bay leaves
1 large onion, quartered
½ cup vegetable oil
½ cup flour
1 large onion, diced
½ cup chopped fresh parsley or 3 tablespoons dried parsley
3 ribs celery, chopped
1 green bell pepper, chopped
1 red bell pepper, chopped
½ cup sliced green onions
4 cloves garlic, minced
4 cups chicken broth
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon Creole seasoning
4-5 cups steamed white rice
liquid hot pepper sauce, optional
1. Place chicken in a large stockpot and cover with 6 cups cold water. Add 2 bay leaves, and the quartered onion. Bring to a boil, lower heat and simmer, uncovered, for one hour until chicken almost falls off the bone. Remove from heat and discard onion and bay leaves. Remove chicken and set aside. Reserve liquid broth.*
2. In large heavy pot, heat oil over medium high heat. Add flour and make a roux. (to make a roux: cook oil and flour together about 10-15 minutes, stirring constantly and slowly with a whisk until it turns very dark brown, almost between brown and black.)
3. Add diced onions, parsley, celery, bell peppers, green onions and garlic to the roux. Cook about 10 minutes, stirring often with a large spoon until vegetables are tender.
4. Add reserved broth, salt, and Creole seasoning to the vegetables, stir well to blend and add okra. Simmer uncovered while you remove the chicken from the bone. Discard bones and skin. Add chicken to the gumbo. Lower heat to low, cover and simmer 15 minutes. Taste, add more salt and seasoning if desired.
5. To serve you may ladle gumbo over rice or serve as pictured with the rice in the gumbo. Serve with hot pepper sauce, if desired.
* Timesaving tip: Eliminate step 1. Substitute one store bought rotisserie chicken or 1 ½ pounds leftover chicken, skin and meat removed from the bone and cut into spoon sized pieces. Replace broth with 4 cups prepared chicken broth.
Makes: 8-10 servings
Can make ahead/Can freeze
Active time: 1 hour
Cooking time: 1 hour