IN SEASON

Okra, tomatoes, corn & lima beans

Fresh gumbo & succotash fixin's available now


Published: Wednesday, June 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, May 31, 2005 at 3:19 p.m.

Okra: either you can't get enough of it, or won't get within a mile of it. The former is probably because you're from Africa, India, the Caribbean or the American South; the latter is probably because you've never had it cooked right.

But here's your chance to have it really fresh, as it thrives in this season. Don't boil it. Don't bread and fry it. Don't pickle it.

Rinse small - 2 to 3 inches long - pods and arrange them points in on a paper plate. Slip them into a plastic bag and microwave them on high for about two minutes. Or steam them in a basket for about five minutes. Sprinkle them with salt and pepper - or try other flavor enhancers, such as Everglades Seasoning or even a dash of hot pepper sauce. Delish. And not one bit slimy.

Okra originated in Ethiopia and flourished in tropical areas of Africa. It is thought to have been brought to the United States by slaves. It is a relative of hibiscus, and it grows in the warm season.

Okra pods get woody very quickly, so they should be picked within two or three days after forming from the flower. You should go over your plants at least every other day. Use clippers to cut the pods off the plant. Keep as cool as possible (out of the sun) until you use them; if you must refrigerate, store in the vegetable bin or the "warmest" part of the refrigerator. Older pods can be left to dry on the plant, and they make great additions to dried arrangements.

You can try growing them yourself, or you can find okra at most of the area farmers' markets this time of year. Look for small tender pods with a slight fuzz. They should be firm, not limp.

Another way to cook okra pods is combine them with another vegetable that is plentiful now - tomatoes. This creates a concoction called "gumbo," which is what okra is called in Africa.

Tomatoes, another joy of summer here, need no introduction, being one of the most popular vegetables eaten in America.

In terms of consumption, tomatoes are fourth among fresh-market vegetables, just behind potatoes, lettuce and onions, with total use averaging 5.3 billion pounds in 2001-03.

Tomatoes originated in the warm climates of Central and South America. Botanically, a tomato is a fruit or, more specifically, a berry. In 1893, the United States Supreme Court ruled the tomato was a "vegetable" and therefore subject to import taxes. It was thought to be poisonous for many years.

There's nothing like a sun-warmed fresh tomato to make it feel like summer. Don't refrigerate tomatoes and don't ripen picked tomatoes in the sun. Place unripe tomatoes in a paper bag and keep them in a cool spot. Fully ripened tomatoes can be chilled to hold them an extra day, but their flavor deteriorates.

OK NOW: AN EASY GUMBO

Combine equal volumes of roughly chopped okra and fresh peeled tomatoes. Chop up a good-sized red onion and mince a couple of cloves of garlic. Saute the okra, onion and garlic until soft and add the fresh tomato - juice, seeds and all. Cook over medium heat until the liquid is reduced to a thick sauce and the okra is tender.

You really don't need any seasoning other than a sprinkle of salt, BUT to add different flavors, experiment with varying amounts of dried thyme, sage, mustard, curry and hot pepper. File powder - the ground leaves of the sassafras tree - is considered a required addition for Creole cooking; it adds a unique flavor and further thickens the stew. Add it after the gumbo is off the heat.

If you want, you can add shrimp, sausage, firm white-fleshed fish, chicken, lamb or mussels; or stir in some cooked rice.

CORN & LIMA BEANS

Check out two other plentiful crops available now: corn and lima beans.

Sweet corn - white, yellow or mixed-should be picked after the silks have turned brown and are dry. Pull back the husk and check to see if the ear is plump and "looks ready." The kernels should be smaller than the ones farther down the cob, but still filled out. Pierce a kernel with your thumbnail, the juice should be milky.

Keep picked corn cool, or the heat will make the sugars turn to starch. The enhanced sugar types remain sweet relatively long after harvest, but it's still best to cook picked corn within a day.

Be leery of roadside stand corn that has been sitting in the sun all day, or even piled high. Heat deteriorates the true flavor of corn.

Lima beans (or the smaller butter beans) should be picked when the beans begin to swell in the pod, but before they begin to get starchy. You may have to experiment and open a few pods before you get the hang of it. In any event, the pods should never start to get yellow before you pick them.

Corn and lima beans together are a Native American staple. It is formed from the Algonquian word "msickquatash," which means boiled corn kernels. People have been adding ingredients to it ever since, namely certain meats.

Easy succotash: two cups of lima beans; four cups of fresh corn, cut off the cob and with the juice scraped off with the dull edge of a knife. Cook over medium heat in 3 tablespoons butter and - cup milk or cream until beans are tender but not overdone.

If you want, add cut-up tomatoes and/or okra. There's plenty out there.

Other fruits and vegetables available at the local markets this summer are:

SALAD FIXIN'S - arugula, cucumbers, green peppers, lettuce, bulbing and green onions and radishes.

Vegetables - beets, collard greens, eggplant, green beans, pole beans, potatoes, pumpkins, rutabagas, snow and sugar snap peas, southern peas, turnips, winter squash, yellow squash and zucchini.

FRUITS - blackberries, blueberries, grapefruit, limes, oranges and watermelon.

SEASONINGS - basil, cilantro and hot peppers.

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