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Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2006 01:05 am

Hoorah for okra!

ItÂ’s slime time for your heart

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Amid the bounty of late-summer vegetables, there’s one that tends to get the short shrift, and her name is okra. In India she’s quite the lady’s finger, in parts of West Africa she’s known as ngombo (which is how gumbo got its name) and in the Middle East she’s got the beautiful melodic name of bamia.

These taut green pods get a bad rap because of the clear viscous substance (a.k.a. mucilage or slime) that is released from the vegetable’s white seeds when cooked.

I’m not gonna tell you how the slime acts as a natural thickener, which is revered among gumbo cooks, or how you can minimize the slime (don’t overcook it). Okra-haters are a stubborn lot.

But what if I told you that slime is a friend to your heart and that okra acts much like oatmeal in lowering cholesterol? The mucilage is actually a form of soluble fiber, which slowly travels through the digestive tract, binding to cholesterol and sweeping it out, much like a broom. A cup of okra contains a whopping 4 grams of fiber, which compares to the media-loving bowl of oatmeal (4 grams for a cooked cup). Ever try to eat that much oatmeal in one sitting?

Below is just one way of getting to know your new pal okra. She’s quite versatile, giving the cook all kinds of possibilities, be it boiled, steamed, fried, pickled, or stuffed. A lover of acid — tomatoes, lemon, and vinegar are all suitable mates — okra also plays nicely with garlic, which is music to my taste buds.

So give a big shout-out to Miz Okra before she leaves town. Your heart will love you for it.

Contact Kim O’Donnel at kim.odonnel@creativeloafing.com

Freestyle Okra-Tomato Saute

2 tablespoons olive oil
Two cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
Half a jalapeño, seeded and minced
Half a sweet onion, diced (optional)
10 okra pods, tops trimmed, cut into 1/2-inch slices
Two medium summer-lovin’ tomatoes, cored and coarsely chopped
2 ounces white wine
Salt and pepper to taste

Heat oil in a deep skillet (avoid using reactive pans such as cast iron or aluminum), and add garlic, jalapeño, and onion. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally to ensure that the garlic does not burn. Add the okra and cook for three to five minutes, allowing it to soften. You’ll notice it turning bright green.

Stir to combine the ingredients and add the tomatoes, followed by the wine. Allow the mixture to come to a boil, then reduce heat and partially cover. Cook at a simmer for as long 10 minutes, until okra reaches the desired degree of doneness.

Season with salt and pepper and eat it alone or over rice.

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