With its fresh, subtle flavor, okra can be a superstar side dish, as long as you follow a few preparation tricks to minimize the mucilage -- that notorious slime that helps thicken gumbo and can frighten even experienced cooks away from using okra by itself. Cooking okra doesn't have to be a complicated or difficult process; simply steam it and dress it with your favorite toppings or sauces for a new take on a Southern classic.
Choosing and Prepping the Pods
Choose fresh, bright green okra pods that are less than 3 inches long for the best, tastiest results. The pods should be tender and crisp. Larger okra pods and older okra tend to be tougher and cook up slimier than smaller, tender pods. Clean okra by scrubbing the outside of each pod with a stiff vegetable brush under cold water. Trim the stem and the cap from each pod, but avoid cutting into the pod, which releases the slimy juices.
Reduce the likelihood of ending up with slimy steamed okra by soaking it in a solution of 1 cup of vinegar mixed with 1 quart of water for about 1 hour. Pat the okra dry and allow it to come to room temperature before steaming it. Avoid overcrowding the steamer and wait to salt the okra until right before you serve it.
To steam okra on the stovetop, add 1 to 2 inches of water to a saucepan or pot with a tightly fitting lid. Place a steamer basket in the pan. If necessary, remove any excess water to make sure the water level is below the base of the steamer basket. Set the pan on the stove over high heat. Once the water is boiling, add the okra to the steamer basket, place the lid on the pan and turn the heat down to medium. Steam okra for approximately 5 to 6 minutes, until it's bright green and fork-tender. Drain the okra before use. If you're steaming frozen okra, it only needs 3 to 4 minutes because it has already been blanched. Blanching, or briefly boiling the okra before plunging it into ice water, is part of the process for freezing fresh okra.
If you don't feel like getting your pots and pans out, try microwave steaming the okra. Not only is microwaving the okra fast and easy, Marian Morash, author of The Victory Garden Cookbook, prefers this method. Because you use less water, the steamed okra tends to be less slimy and drier than okra that's steamed on the stovetop. Place the okra in a microwave-safe dish with just the water that clings to the pods. Cover the dish and microwave fresh okra on high for approximately 5 to 6 minutes. If you're using frozen okra, microwave steam it for about 2 minutes.
Using Steamed Okra
One of the simplest ways to serve steamed okra is with a little melted butter and sea salt. Another option is to toss the steamed okra with a sauce, such as a roasted red pepper sauce made with a combination of roasted red bell peppers, tahini, parsley, garlic and fresh lemon juice.
Other ideas include slicing it and adding it to quiches or omelets along with tomatoes for balanced flavor. You can also add sliced, steamed okra to cooked rice and aromatic vegetables to make a stuffing for tomatoes or peppers before baking the stuffed vegetables at 400 degrees Fahrenheit for approximately 10 minutes.