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lovin' okra 
by Beth Lovern |
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My annual hometown festival features a single delicious but quirky Southern vegetable: okra. Growing up as a participant in the Okra Strut parade, it's no surprise that I love the fuzzy, earthy green pod. Brought over from Africa during colonial times, okra quickly made its way into the rich culinary fabric of our nation, particularly here in the South.

Outside of my part of the country, however, it seems that okra has remained an undiscovered culinary secret. Having met many people who have never sampled okra, I am often asked, "What is it like?" Sadly, okra is frequently described as "mucilaginous," or for those who prefer their adjectives pithier, "slimy." Luckily, this property is only exhibited when okra is cooked or boiled for a long period of time. As for the flavor, it's hard to explain exactly. Imagine an earthy-flavored cross between an artichoke and an eggplant, and you begin to get the idea.

Many Southern vegetable gardens feature the okra plant since it grows easily in most conditions in the summer. Okra can be fried, sautéed, added to soups and stews, and pickled. You cannot have traditional gumbo without okra, as it's the essential ingredient that thickens that famous Creole dish. In fact, "gumbo" is often used as another name for okra.

But what's the best way to enjoy okra? Bar none my favorite way to eat it is coated in a cornmeal crust and deep-fried. To me, fried okra is better than popcorn, better than French fries, the ultimate snack or side dish. Clearly, I'm not alone in my opinion; the fried okra stands at the Okra Strut are always the most popular. I also seek out okra at Indian restaurants, as Indian cooks have a great affinity for the vegetable (which they call "bindi") and have devised many delectable ways of cooking it. And I would much rather have a single pickled okra in my Bloody Mary than a pickled string bean or celery stalk, but so far I haven't been to a bar that serves it that way. Actually, pretty much the only way I won't touch okra is when it arrives in its plain boiled incarnation -- I leave that gooey mess to the iron-stomached participants of the annual "Boiled Okra Eating Contest."

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