Sunday, August 7, 2011

Zee Best okra

The Victory Garden Cookbook (Paperback)I learned about Zee Best okra when I was working at the Urban Harvest teaching garden in Houston, TX. We grew it there, and it grew fantastically well in the hot Houston summers.  Zee Best makes a lot of branches, and unlike some okra varieties, the branches themselves begin to blossom and produce pods. So one Zee Best plant can make a lot of okra. In Texas okra can even winter over, if there is no frost, and begin producing again for a second year. Some okra plants there that I've seen have huge trunks, like small trees!

In my garden in Tennessee, okra doesn't winter over, but Zee Best is still very productive, and it's very tasty. Its pods are unusual in that they are not ridged, but smooth. The pods are velvety, with tiny soft hairs on them. They can get quite large before they become inedible. The pods grow fast, too, so it's best to pick them every day. I use a pair of Felco pruners to clip them off the bush.

There are many ways to cook okra. Of course, fried okra is famous, but I don't really like to heat up huge pots of oil for deep frying. My usual way to cook okra is adapted from The Victory Garden Cookbook by Marian Morash.

1 lb okra
1 lb cherry tomatoes
1 cup chopped leeks or onions
1 clove garlic
2 T butter or olive oil

Saute the leeks and okra in the melted butter or olive oil for about ten minutes. Add the cherry tomatoes and garlic. Saute for 3-4 minutes longer.  Reduce the heat, cover the pan, and cook for about ten minutes longer. Don't overcook okra; keep its bright green color if possible.

It's easy to save the seed from okra.  Early in the season, you select five pods from five different plants. Mark these pods with some plastic flagging tape so nobody will pick them. Allow these pods to grow all summer; they will get very long, and then they begin to get hard. When they turn brown and dry, they are ready to harvest. Inside are small black okra seeds. Shell these out and store them in a jar in the refrigerator until spring.

Okra does not like cold soil, so wait until the soil is warm to direct seed it in the garden.  Sometimes it is slow to come up, so pre-sprouting the seed is a good idea. This spring, I soaked the seed overnight and then wrapped it in a damp paper towel. I put the towel in a plastic bag, and I put the whole package on an electric heating pad on low. Then I covered it with a towel to make it dark (most seeds like darkness to sprout). I checked them every day, and when some of them sprouted, I moved the sprouted ones to the garden or to a pot to grow on, and I put the unsprouted ones back in the plastic bag. It took some of the seeds a lot longer to sprout than others, for some reason, but I got a lot of plants from just a few seeds that way. You can also start the seeds in small pots and transplant them when they have two true leaves.

Okra seed is short-lived, so don't try to save old seed for years and years. Grow new seed each year for next year's crop. Also, if you keep the seed in a jar in the refrigerator, it will keep better.

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