Perhaps some of you planted a garden after the hard freeze we experienced at the beginning of February, did you plant any okra? Okra is generally planted 2 or 3 weeks after all danger of frost has passed, which would have been about late April or early May. The plant requires at least 3 months to grow before harvesting. Unlike some vegetables that are fun to grow as large as possible, this does not apply when harvesting okra. Okra pods should be harvested when between 3 to 4 inches in length. Those of you who know okra know that – the smaller pods are more tender. Fresh okra always sells quickly, and those who appreciate a good gumbo are always happy when the first okra of the season becomes available. Now that okra is available almost at any time of the year in grocery stores, eating a freshly made gumbo is no longer just a summer specialty.
Okra is an annual plant of tropical and subtropical regions of our world that bears pods which are eaten as a vegetable. Each pod contains many small seeds and, when cut, releases a slimy, gummy substance which gives okra its special character. Generally considered native to Africa, okra is one of those vegetables that some might sneer at. It can become slimy and gooey, but this can quickly be set aside when one realizes just how tasty a good gumbo can be. According to some, gumbo is a soup popular in Louisiana and, of course, it is the state’s official cuisine. Gumbo is one of those dishes that crosses all barriers, appearing on the tables of the poor and the rich. Some think it is the perfect example of the melting-pot nature of Louisiana cooking, but trying to sort out its origins and the evolution of the dish is often somewhat speculative.
Americans use okra as one of the main ingredients for Creole cooking. Its sliced pods give a thick, glutinous texture to the ‘gumbo soups’ we might know so well, but it has a much broader regional footprint than it appears. Its roots are West African. Okra was introduced in the South much earlier than the first arrival of the Cajuns in Louisiana who arrived around 1764. (Remember the story of Evangeline?) So, it was these displaced Canadian French who discovered gumbo after moving there. Any gourmet author who writes otherwise has missed the mark. Gumbo is African—not French, as evidenced by the word ki ngombo, or guingombo, by which the dish is also known.
According to my research, gumbo gained national attention only in the 1970s, after the U.S. Senate added it to its chamber dining room menu in honor of then Louisiana Senator Allen Ellender. It is also said that chef Paul Prudhomme spurred further interest in the dish in the 1980s. Yet, the history of gumbo runs much deeper. A reference to an okra gumbo first appeared at the turn of the 19th century—about 170 years earlier. In 1803 it was served at a gubernational reception in New Orleans as President Jefferson concluded Louisiana’s purchase from France.
A variety of recipes were published in 1885 in Lafcadio Hern’s La Cuisine Creole, which likely helped identify gumbo as being Creole. Most recently, has been the creation of the TremÁ©, Creole, and Gumbo Festival that is helping establish gumbo firmly in the Cajun heritage. To make it even more confusing is the fact that TremÁ© is the oldest African American neighborhood in the US—and also the birthplace of jazz. This is all terribly confusing, and it will suffice to simply remember that okra came from Africa, and it did start with the Africans who ended up in Louisiana. It must have made its way to Texas at some point as the first Germans ventured across the Republic of Texas, and it must have become popular even in a small town settled by Germans, or how else did not one, but two recipes for Okra Gumbo appear in the 1916 1st edition of the Fredericksburg Home Kitchen Cook Book?
The Okra Gumbo my mother made for us never included shrimp or any other meat that can be found in so many variations of popular and exciting gumbo recipes available today. It is a good dish to throw everything into, just as many do in creating their exciting chilis at a chili cook-off. The gumbo served in our home was a very simple vegetarian one indeed. Okra Gumbo should always be served hot – I cannot imagine eating it cold – and though it can be served with rice, why bother with that when a large, piping-hot bowl of this is all that is required to make one’s day?
4 cups okra, cut into ½ inch slices
3 fresh jalapenos diced or chopped
1 cup chopped white onion
1 cup chopped bell pepper
4 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp sugar
2 tsp flour
1 ½ tsp salt
½ tsp pepper
6 peeled and quartered tomatoes.
Or 1 qt canned tomatoes – (We suggest adding any of our Mom’s Pasta Sauces to add that extra layer of flavor with garlic and basil already added)
Cover the okra with a small amount of salted water.
Bring to a rolling boiling and cook for about ten minutes, then drain.
In a larger pot, sauté onions and chopped pepper in olive oil until tender, but not too browned.
Blend in sugar, flour.
Salt and pepper to taste.
Add tomatoes, jalapenos, and the okra.
Cook over low heat until hot, stirring as little as possible.
Refrigerate left over gumbo. It gets better by the day.
For those who love to experiment, feel free to add garlic, perhaps even some Creole mustard and Worcestershire sauce. One may also wish to add soy sauce, liquid smoke, and an array of spices, including thyme, red pepper flakes, smoked paprika, nutmeg or oregano. Thinly sliced celery and green onions also help create your own special kind of gumbo – enjoy!
By: Mark Wieser