As other plants wilt, okra can stand the Texas heat
As upper Texas coast gardeners watch their vegetable gardens wilt and fade away during the hot summer months, the tall and lanky okra plants continue to thrive.
Okra loves the heat and sun, and that’s a good thing for local gardeners.
Okra, which is in the hibiscus family, can be boiled, fried, sautéed, roasted or eaten raw. It’s good in soups, salads, gumbos, casseroles and all by itself. The “slimy” insides are useful for thickening sauces and gumbo.
The okra plant blooms beautiful whitish-yellow flowers with a purple center. As the flower disappears overnight, the vegetable begins to appear. In a few days, it has grown to its desired size and should be harvested, which is the rule of thumb for most traditional okras. If okra grows more than 3 or 4 inches long, it becomes tough and stringy and not good for eating. But in the 1980s, a Houston couple spent a decade perfecting another strand of okra, naming it Zeebest — and it just might be the best.
Houstonians George and Mary Stewart took from their friend Joe Ziegler a few pods of a highly productive Louisiana Green Velvet okra. They selected seeds from plants that made tender and heavily branched plants, which produced the best seeds. It took many years to develop their own strand, but the final product — Stewart’s Zeebest and later just Zeebest — became a popular and prolific garden vegetable.
The Zeebest okra plants can grow until they’re 8 to 10 inches long before they’re picked. Unlike Clemson spineless okra, which is a dark green and fuzzy skin, the Zeebest are long, skinny twisted pods with smooth skin and no spine. The slender plants grow straight up.
Zeebest grows so quickly it has to be harvested daily, said Galveston County Master Gardener Herman Auer, who plants okra anywhere he can find a space on his property.
“I cut out a piece of lawn and put them in there because they are narrow plants and go straight up,” Auer said.
Okra on the Gulf Coast is an ideal summer plant. It needs little fertilizer, a bit of water and lots of sunshine. And it loves the heat.
The tender pods can be cut up and put in salads raw for a crunchy texture.
“They are a healthier version of croutons,” said Hazel Lampton, who also is a Master Gardener.
And these are prolific plants. Last year, a small group of gardeners planted eight okras in one plot. The plants produced 48 pounds of edible okra.
Master Gardener Hedy Wolpa, who has studied beneficial and pesty bugs, said okra is a hardy plant that doesn’t attract many insects.
“The stink bugs and aphids are not too harmful, but they should be removed,” said Wolpa, who added that grasshoppers also like okra. “They can be removed with an insecticidal soap or Dawn soap or just a blast of water.”
The bugs like tomatoes better, she said.
Wolpa and fellow gardener Sue Bain also plant flowers, such as zinnias, cosmos and French marigolds, around the okras to attract birds that eat the stink bugs and aphids.
As the unrelenting summer heat continues, look to the gardens to see the happy okra. They might be the only plants in the garden happily soaking up the sun, growing and producing despite the temperatures.
Master Gardeners Hedy Wolpa and Sue Bain shared some of their favorite okra recipes.
Okra and Rice Casserole
3 tablespoon canola oil
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
½ cut chopped onion
½ cup chopped celery
½ cup chopped green bell pepper
2 teaspoons minced garlic
1 can (14.5-ounce) diced tomatoes
3 cups vegetable broth
1½ pounds fresh okra, cut into 1 ½- to 2-inch pieces
1 cup fresh corn kernels
2 teaspoons Cajun seasoning
¼ teaspoon black pepper
¼ cup melted salted butter
2 garlic cloves
8 (1-inch-thick) French bread slices
2 (8.5-ounce) pouches microwavable basmati rice
Preheat oven to 350 F. Lightly grease a 13-inch-by-9-inch baking dish.
Whisk oil and flour together; cook over medium-high heat, whisking until mixture is golden brown, 5-7 minutes. Stir in onion, celery, bell pepper and minced garlic, stirring while cooking until vegetables are soft.
Stir in tomatoes, broth, okra, corn, Cajun seasoning and pepper, and bring mixture to boil over medium heat. Reduce heat and cook until slightly thickened, about 10 minutes.
Separately combine melted butter and press garlic. Brush both sides of French bread with garlic butter and bake in preheated oven for 3 minutes until golden brown. Remove from oven and put into food processor until coarsely crumbled.
Squeeze rice pouches to separate the grains inside the bag. Tear a 2-inch vent in each pouch and microwave on high for 2 minutes — it might be slightly undercooked, but that’s OK. Spoon into the prepared baking dish and top with okra mixture and breadcrumbs.
Bake for 25 minutes in preheated oven. Let stand 10 minutes before serving.
Refrigerated Pickled Okra
15-20 okra pods
3 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tablespoon kosher salt, plus more for salting the pods
1½ cups white vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
½ teaspoon smoked paprika
1⁄8-1⁄4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon mustard seed
2 tablespoons water
Trim the pods so tops are flat, but the pods aren’t cut open. Place in a colander and sprinkle with kosher salt. Set aside.
Combine all the remaining ingredients in a medium saucepan; bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer 5 minutes. Remove from cooktop. Cool for 10 minutes.
Stuff okra into the clean jars, up and down, until the jars are full. Pour vinegar mixture over the okra. If there is too much liquid, just make sure all the spices and garlic get into the jars.
Screw tops on jars and refrigerate 36-48 hours before tasting.
This will keep deliciously in the refrigerator for up to two weeks and heat sealing isn’t required.
Pickled okra is a great addition to a crudité platter, served with cheeses, crackers and sweet grapes.
*The size of okra will depend on how many canning jars you’ll need.