Monday, September 27, 2010

Another reason to go to Oklahoma

Though few of you may realize the many characteristics of Oklahoma, most of you probably don't.  You may all know that the wind comes sweeping down the plain and that the waving wheat can sure smell sweet when the wind comes right begin the rain.  You probably also are aware that there are still a lot of Native Americans living there and that they were sent there by the immigrants that wanted their land in the southeast. And if you read our last blog you know a little about some of the interesting architecture in Oklahoma.   But I feel certain you don't know about okra and it's Oklahoma connection.
Now to be fair to the long and interesting history of okra, it didn't originate at all in Oklahoma- but is rather a transplant- like the Indians- and my family- for that matter.  And growing up I wouldn't have even recognized that Oklahoma "did Okra", because all the okra I ever ate was during my visits to my aunt's in the south- Tennessee to be exact. But I usually didn't eat much of the okra- too slimy for me! I much, much preferred the coconut cake- or the pecan pie- or the boiled custard- or the country ham.

Though it's not quite clear the absolute origins of Okra, most experts believe that it's most likely origin is in the area of the Nile- Sudan, Ethiopia and Egypt.  It has been found growing wild along the banks of the Nile.  But it didn't take long for this vegetable to spread across to both the east and the west. It's well known in the the cooking of the middle east and all across Africa. It's passage to the New World was via a slave boat from west Africa- and it's first "sighting" was in Brazil around the middle of the 17th century.  By the middle of the 18th century it had made it's way to North America. It established it's central role in Gumbo - a signature dish in the Creole cooking of Louisiana- very early in the culinary history of this country.  Okra won't grow much north of the Mason-Dixon line or even very well where it is hot and wet. 

We do see okra occasionally in Ohio in the produce section of the grocery, but it usually has a sign on it that says:  "this is okra".  You never see signs like that near the tomatoes.  But Oklahoma is hot and usually dry, and Okra thrives there. My Dad used to grow it in our garden, and it grew so fast that we would have to pick it every day or the pods would get too big and tough.

So why am I blogging about okra???   I never really liked it very much when I was growing up.  You can slice it up and boil it into a slimy mess to put in stews (awful in my opinion), or you can slice it, batter it and then fry it (my Mom's chosen way to cook it and not too bad if you also mix in some onions or peppers), or you can PICKLE IT.  Now if you have never eaten pickled okra, I feel a little sorry for you for you have missed one of the wonderful things in life.  The first time I ever ate pickled okra was at Mom and Dad's dining room table.  And oh my!  It was love at first bite! I didn't marry into the Lucas family for the okra but is did sweeten the pot a bit! Unfortunately, Max and I have also been missing that delicacy these past few years.  My Mom always made pickled okra and then my brothers and I would make off with a few jars, whenever we came to visit.  Brother Bill used to love to put okra into his Gin Martinis instead of an olive.  But Mom left us almost two years ago and we've been left to our own to find pickled okra.  The stuff you buy in the stores isn't bad, but it isn't that good either. Certainly it's never as good as Mom's. 

But Mom did leave us her recipes, so Max and I decided we could try pickling.  Since we couldn't get decent okra here, we tried pickling other things.  We did pretty well with asparagus and it has become a fairly popular appetizer here at our house.  And though we like asparagus, it has a fairly short growing cycle, and it is also pretty expensive. And it's just not as good as okra.  You can use it as a substitute- but it will always be the substitute for the really, really good stuff.  Last year we found a bit of okra here and I quickly brought it home and we pickled it.  Oh my!  The addiction started- I just had to have more.  My produce "guy" told me he'd keep his eye out for it- but this year hardly any made it's way north- not a good growing season in the southeast- the origin of much of our "southern" food.

But this year the stars seemed to align in a way they never have before.  We had planned to go to Oklahoma in October to see Frank and Fay,  Max's father and step-mom on their birthday.  Unfortunately, Clint, Max's son, will be deploying to Afghanistan in late October and he will have two weeks leave about the same time we had planned to go to Oklahoma.  So this year we moved the date for the Oklahoma trip to early September, and early September is peak Okra season in Oklahoma.

Fay did a little advance searching for us and found a farmer's market not too far north of them in the thriving town of Bixby, Oklahoma.  When I last lived in Tulsa 40 years ago Bixby was not more than a filling station and a sign, but now it has grown into a very nice community that is commuting distance to Tulsa.  So Fay and I drove to Bixby and bought 1.5 bushels of Okra.  It was beautiful okra, nothing at all  like we get here in Cincinnati.

We packed it all in ice chests for the long drive back to Cincinnati.  And once we got home we realized that we were going to be very short on Bell Jars.  So it was off to the store to buy another 8 dozen pint jars.

 And of course we also needed several gallons of vinegar, lots of garlic, hot peppers, pickling salt and spices.

But in the end, it was all worth it.  We ended up with 111 pints of pickled okra, an amount that will surely last us for a couple of years, that is unless the kids start taking them home with them like I used to do.

Grandma Lucas’ Pickled Okra

Pickling mixture for 4 pints:
2 cups cider vinegar
2 cups water
1/8 to 1/4 cup pickling salt
        (Depending on taste and propensity to high blood pressure)
1 Tbsp mustard seed
2 tsp dill seed (whole)
Okra, whole (about 2#)
Cloves of garlic, 1-2 per jar
1/4 tsp powdered alum per jar
Hot peppers, 1-2 per jar
Fresh dill-optional

1. Fill 4 pints with okra, alum, hot pepper, garlic cloves, and dill if using.

2. Bring vinegar, water, mustard seed and dill seed to a boil.

3. Pour the vinegar solution over the filled jars of okra.

4. Seal each jar and water pack for 5 minutes for a good seal.

(And if you get really interested in pickling I recommend the book The Complete Book of Pickling by Jennifer MacKenzie.)


Brandy said...

Holy okra batman! We can't wait to sample when we get to Ohio in November

Fouad said...

As for the origin of the okra, don't forget Iraq and Iran, where it is known as Bamyah or Bamyeh :-). How did that get translated to okra??

Sandy said...

What a beautiful piece, you two, and a most loving tribute to your mother, Don. My mother is a huge fried okra fan (no breading, though), so I'm going to try to copy and paste this for her HP printing e-mail mmachine today. I always think of her when I see okra at the "feira," and have tried to fix some for myself since Newton won't touch it, but I gave up. Can't get the martini with pickled okra out of my mind!

The spirited adventures you two embark upon are infectious, indeed.

Lucas said...

Holy crow! What GREAT photos! And SO MANY jars of Okra. You guys are SET! And if one of those jars happens to take a ride in your van on the way down to the TW next month, I know one vodka drinking Captain who wouldn't object one little bit. :)