On a Saturday promising to top 103 degrees, I arrived early at our local Kyle Market Days, conducted monthly in this former railroad town 15 miles south of Austin. I stopped off for a few minutes to visit with Tim, our local organic farmer, who had culinary herbs and plants, plus tiny amounts of garlic and peppers on offer. The big rain associated with Hurricane Dolly last week dampened the soil enough to allow his late summer/fall crop seedlings to sprout. We’re all crossing our fingers that the 2008 hurricane season doesn’t further damage any of our coastal towns, but will bring welcome moisture from the Gulf of Mexico to central Texas. We’re already matching the record-setting temperatures of year 2000 for days above 100 degrees, and we’re only in early August. The largest display of “local” produce was from a small farm in Geronimo, Texas, about 20 miles away. This part of central Texas has deep, rich Blackland Prairie soil, therefore raising a variety of vegetables is easier than in the Hill Country’s scant dusting of dirt atop bedrock. The tables and bins of vegetables and melons included the last of the farmer’s cabbages, gorgeous colored peppers and tomatoes, four kinds of squashes, hearty tomatoes, and glorious spears of okra. I excitedly grabbed a tub of okra, a few zucchini, some onions, and a basket of very ripe tomatoes. I had in mind a mid-summer okra stew, perhaps flavored with a few Whole Catch scallops & Key West pink shrimp, and/or the store-made chicken sausage waiting in the freezer. I’ve never made a successful roux—I don’t think Yankees have it in their genes—and didn’t have any file or mud-bugs (crawfish) on hand, so gumbo was a no-go. Okra stew comes pretty close, though. Unfortunately, the tomatoes never made it into my market bag, overlooked while the farmer warned me of the unscrupulous vegetable peddlers at a nearby farmers market, where vendors allegedly buy veggies from a national distributor and try to pass them off as homegrown. Angry about this fraud toward consumers, she never finished putting the veggies in my bag—almost as if my getting the bona fide homegrown vegetables were beside the point. Okra is arguably the most glamorous crop plant in a garden, all luscious, spreading leaves and startling blooms, the pods growing out like afterthoughts. As a member of the hibiscus family, here’s a plant that is both ornamental and edible. I love the earthy taste of fresh okra pods, and the festival shape of crosswise cut pieces, however, unless cooked with an acidic complement like tomato, the ooze factor of plain okra is more than my western-trained tongue can tolerate. Long after the market had closed down for the day, I discovering the dearth of tomatoes as I wielded a chef’s knife to make short work of the veggies going into the stew. I had an “oh, no!” moment. Luckily I found a can of smoked tomatoes in the pantry. Into the pot they went, with garlic, zucchini, okra, and onion from the farmer’s market, three handfuls of frozen black-eyed peas, augmented with a quick vegetable stock made from simmering the outer leaves of the cabbage, the discarded tops and ends of the stew-bound produce, and some wilted celery and carrots from the fridge. After simmering on low with black pepper and a few dollops of an all-purpose “blackened seasoning” for a few hours, I divided the stew into thirds and added a handful of scallops, a half-dozen shrimp and half a chicken sausage to the pot I intended to eat over the next few days. Ladled on top of half a cup of rice in the bottom of a bowl, the hearty stew marries the flavors of the field with just enough seafood to make for a satisfying, quasi-local mid-summer meal.*Photo Credit: Thanks to galant of The Bitten Word for your beautiful okra shot.
Ode to Okra