Overcooked, it's the vegetable equivalent of the blind date from Hell: slippery, slimy, gummy, with prickly fuzz. When it gets too old, it's tough and tart. Its appearance is a challenge too: a ridged pointed pod that can range from two to seven inches long.
Treated with respect, however, and used as one ingredient of many in spicy stews and gumbos, or cooked until tender and not a minute more, okra is at its best. It's low calorie and full of fiber and vitamin C.
How to buy them: This is the season for okra lovers--the vegetable should always be picked and purchased young. Look for crisp, bright green pods without spots, blemishes or mold. And stick with the small ones: from two to three inches long. Any larger than that, the pods will be very tough.
How to store them: Don't--not for very long anyway. And don't let them get wet. Okra is very perishable. If you can't use them right away, try keeping them a day or two in a paper bag in the warmer part of the refrigerator.
How to prepare them: Quickly, that is, if you're steaming or stir-frying. That will keep the juices from thickening. (Okra is sometimes used as a thickener in soups and stews, and when it's overcooked, that's what happens.) If you're cooking them whole, rinse them and cut off the tops and bottoms first but be careful not to expose their seeds. Try them steamed for 4 to 6 minutes with butter and lemon or, after they cool, with a vinaigrette. Saute them anywhere from five to 20 minutes, according to taste, in an uncovered pot to try to retain some crunch. Okra works well with tart flavors like lemon juice, vinegar and spices, and it's good pickled too. You can deep-fry them whole or sliced into rounds and coated with cornmeal or cracker crumbs. In spicy gumbos, okra is often used both sliced and as a thickener. In vegetable stews such as ratatouille, add the okra late in the cooking process. A popular vegetable in India paired with onions, garlic and ginger, okra is also good with tomatoes, sliced onions and hot pepper flakes.
If you're looking for new ways to cook okra, consider some of the preparations chef Neil Langermann is featuring at Georgia Brown's restaurant this month: steamed with lemon-scented hollandaise, stewed with tomatoes and garlic over saffron rice, in a gratin with potatoes, crispy fried and stacked.