Okra can get along just fine without Creole or gumbo dishes

Don't ever think that recipes for okra need be restricted to Creole or gumbo dishes. Okra can be stir-fried with green pepper, onion, celery, and a sprinkle of soy sauce.

It is delicious dipped into a tempura batter and fried until golden brown.

Also, okra is a fascinating plant to grow, producing the long, unusual pods around 55 to 60 days after germination. The short growing season allows for late planting in areas where frost has a way of lingering in the spring.

The okra plant is relatively free from the ravages of garden pests. It grows contentedly in any average soil, but it needs full sun. At full height okra can grow to six feet tall and should not be planted where its leafy foliage shades smaller vegetables.

This plant is a member of the hibiscus family, and its lovely cream-colored blooms are much like those of the hollyhock. Some gardeners have been known to plant okra along a fence as an ornamental, for the floral effect. Dwarf varieties can be planted as a flower border.

The vegetable comes in red as well as green. Red pods turn green when cooked. All pods have a similar flavor while the spineless varieties seem to be more tender.

Okra joins beautifully with most other garden vegetables. It is delightful in tomato, green pepper, corn, onion, and summer squash dishes. A staple of Creole cooking, it can be used in any number of fascinating combinations with rice, beans, spices, seafood, and wild game. It may be steamed whole and served with a vinaigrette or Hollandaise sauce. Pods are often sliced into rounds, dusted with cornmeal, and fried alone or with diced potatoes, onions, tomatoes, or other vegetables.

Picked fresh from the garden, blanched for three minutes, chilled, and served with an interesting dip, okra pods are delicious used as snacks or appetizers.

Okra pickles are another unusual snack or appetizer. Blanch small pods, place in sterilized jars, pour in your favorite dill pickle solution, and seal. In only three weeks the dilled okra will be ready to serve.

When making pickles, harvest pods nearly uniform in size as these will be more attractive than those of assorted dimensions once they are placed in canning jars.

For all cooking purposes, okra must be picked while very young and tender. The pods are rapid growers and must be picked daily when about two- to five-inches long.

Seeds of overgrown pods can be saved for next year's crop. Other giant pods can be used in dried floral arrangements.

Small numbers of tender okra pods may be stored in the refrigerator for several days until enough for a particular recipe have been gathered.

To freeze, whole or sliced, blanch three minutes, drain, spread on a cookie tin and freeze.

Once frozen solid, store in plastic bags or containers and use in omelets and casseroles as well as the more typical gumbo recipes.

There are many ways of preparing okra which do not involve gluey results. The important thing to remember is do not overcook.

The exception to this rule is whenever the vegetable is used in a soup or stew. In these instances, the otherwise unappealing consistency becomes quite desirable because okra can become an excellent thickening and flavoring agent.

Sow some okra in this year's garden and test its versatility. If you enjoy fresh vegetables, you will like okra.

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