Okra, also known as “lady’s finger”, or “bamia” or “gumbo”, but commonly called ochroes in the Caribbean, is one of the popular nutritious vegetables of North-East African origin. The pods usually gathered while they are green, tender, and at immature stage. The plant is cultivated throughout the tropical and warm temperate regions around the world for their fibrous fruits or “pods.” Bamia grows best in well-drained and manure rich soil. An annual vegetable from the same family as hollyhock, rose of Sharon and hibiscus. The immature pods are used for soups, canning and stews or as a fried or boiled vegetable. The hibiscus like flowers and upright plant (3 to 6 feet or more in height) have ornamental value for backyard gardens.
In the Garden
Because okra seeds do not germinate well in cool soils, plant seeds after the soil has warmed in the spring, probably a week to 10 days after the date of the last frost for your area. Okra usually grows well in any good garden soil. Shallow cultivation near the plants keeps down weeds.
The pods should be picked (usually cut) while they are tender and immature (2 to 3 inches long for most varieties). They must be picked often—at least every other day. Okra plants have short hairs that may irritate bare skin. Wear gloves and long sleeves to harvest okra. Use pruning shears for clean cuts that do not harm the rest of the plant. When the stem is difficult to cut, the pod is probably too old to use. The large pods rapidly become tough and woody. The plants grow and bear until frost, which quickly blackens and kills them.
Health Benefits of Okra
The bamia pods are among the very low calorie vegetables. They provide just 30 calories per 100 g besides containing no saturated fats or cholesterol. Nonetheless, they are rich sources of dietary fiber, minerals, and vitamins; often recommended by nutritionists in cholesterol controlling and weight reduction programs.
- The pods are one of the rich sources of mucilage substance that help in smooth peristalsis of digested food through the gut and ease constipation condition.
- The pods compose healthy amounts of vitamin A, and flavonoid anti-oxidants such as beta-carotene, xanthin and lutein. It is one of the vegetables with highest levels of these anti-oxidants. These compounds are known to have antioxidant properties and are essential for vision. Vitamin A is also required for maintaining healthy mucus membranes and skin. Consumption of natural vegetables and fruits rich in flavonoids helps to protect from lung and oral cavity cancers.
- Fresh pods are the good source of folates; provide about 22% of RDA per 100 g. Consumption of foods rich in folates, especially during the pre-conception period helps decrease the incidence of neural tube defects in the offspring.
- The gumbo pods are also an excellent source of anti-oxidant vitamin, vitamin-C, providing about 36% of daily-recommended levels. Research suggests that consumption of foods rich in vitamin-C helps human body develop immunity against infectious agents, reduce episodes of cold and cough and protect it from harmful free radicals.
- They are rich in B-complex group of vitamins like niacin, vitamin B-6 (pyridoxine), thiamin and pantothenic acid. The pods also contain good amounts of vitamin K. Vitamin K is a co-factor for blood clotting enzymes and is required for strengthening of bones.
- The pods are also good source of many important minerals such as iron, calcium, manganese and magnesium.
In the Kitchen
Aside from gumbo, okra compliments tomatoes, onions and corn, shellfish and fish stock. Okra has a subtle taste, similar to the flavor of eggplant. Freezing is the best method for long term home storage of okra. Freeze only young, tender okra. Okra must be blanched before freezing, as with all vegetables. Unbalanced okra will quickly become tough and suffer huge nutrient, flavor and color loss during freezing. Follow the procedure outlined below for successful home freezing.
To Prepare Okra for Freezing
Since freezing does not improve the quality of any vegetable, it is important to start with fresh green pods. Avoid pods longer than 2 to 2-1/2 inches long. Okra that is at peak quality for eating is best for freezing.
- In a blanching pot or large pot with tight fitting lid, bring about 5 quarts of water to a rolling boil.
- Meanwhile, wash, and trim of stems of okra pods, leaving caps whole.
- Blanch no more than one pound of okra at a time. Drop pods into boiling water and immediately cover with a tight fitting lid.
- Start timing the blanching immediately and blanch for four minutes.
- Prepare an ice water bath in a large 5 to 6 quart container or use the sink.
- Remove the okra from the blanching water with a slotted spoon or blanching basket.
- Emerge the okra in the ice water bath for 5 min. or until completely cool. If ice is unavailable, use several changes of cold tap water to cool the vegetables.
- Remove from water and drain.
- Label and date, quart size, zip-closure freezer bags.
- Pack okra into prepared freezer bags, squeeze out as much air as possible by folding the top portion of the bag over. Gently push air out and seal. Freeze for up to one year at 32°F or below.
Note: Return blanching water to a boil after each batch of vegetables is blanched and replenish water if necessary.
Some favourite okra recipes:
- Okra and Corn with Tomatoes
- Okra and Green Beans