We are a week away from Christmas, buried in close to twenty inches of snow, temperatures that are hovering at about 5 degrees above zero, and here is a post about one of my favorite summer vegetables to grow, Okra. Okra or hibiscus esculentus (according to the 1975 printing of Rodale’s How to Grow Vegetables and Fruits by the Organic Method) is a native to warm and temperate climates, but here in Minnesota, it can be grown as an annual. Being a relative of the Hibiscus, okra has beautiful flowers and is a wonderful addition to the garden and a great source of nectar for all the honey and bumble bees. I first started growing okra as an experiment in one of my first gardens when I still lived with my parents. Since then, I have come to love this exotic, warm climate vegetable and have learned many different ways of preparing the young tender seed pods. In no particular order our family really likes pickled okra with dill and garlic, okra dredged in cornmeal and fried in bacon fat, okra and tomato vinaigrette salad and, okra used in a southern style gumbo stew (seafood, chicken, sausage, vegetables etc….). One trait of okra that I really enjoy is the ease of growing and caring for the plant. The only tricky thing I have found about okra, is getting it to sprout. In our cooler Minnesota spring, it is absolutely necessary to start the seeds in warm soil, and if you are starting them indoors and transplanting the seedlings be careful, okra seedlings are very sensitive, and the roots do not like to be disturbed. However, once your patch of okra is established, there is very little you have to do to insure a decent harvest. Due to the fact that okra originates in warm climates (the jury is still out on exactly where – either Africa or Asia), it can handle hot temps and to some extent drought. Until this year, our okra also seemed immune to pest problems until the Japanese Beetle developed a taste for our Clemson Spineless okra leaves. I try to fortify my okra patch with at least a little compost and I always mulch with straw, leaves, or grass clippings. We usually don’t start harvesting seed pods until the end of July or early August, but once they start coming in (and also depending on how many plants you have in the ground), you can expect at least one main dish of okra per week. It is essential to harvest the seed pods when they are young and tender, once they start getting more than about four inches long they start to get quite fibrous. This last season we planted Clemson Spineless and Burmese, for a total of probably thirty plants. The Clemson Spineless was the early producer, but the Burmese was the heavy producer. So heavy in fact that we did not keep up with fresh eating or pickling, hence writing about okra at the end of December. Due to the amount of harvested, dried seed pods we have had sitting in our kitchen for the last three months, and having no need for saving that much seed, we finally tried a new use for okra seed.
The mature okra seed can be roasted, ground and then brewed up as a coffee substitute. I started this process by first cleaning all the large, woody pods of their seeds. After collecting about a pint or so of seeds, I soaked them for about ten minutes in warm water. While the seeds were soaking I set our largest cast iron skillet over high heat and let it start heating up. After about ten minutes of soaking I drained the cleaned seeds into a colander and let them drain for about five more minutes. At this point, the skillet was very hot and I added the drained okra seeds. Initially there was a bit of steam but that dissipated quickly and the seeds started their adventure of being roasted. Constantly stirring the seeds, it took at least ten or fifteen minutes of roasting before I started to hear some popping and to see smoke. Once this started to happen I went for another ten
minutes with almost constant stirring. Due to the fact that most okra seed is naturally dark, I did not notice much of a color change, but the aromas were wonderful. Roasted okra seed has an aroma somewhere between roasted popcorn and roasted pumpkin seeds – kind of nutty and slightly burnt. Once they were cool to the touch I put them in an uncovered mason jar and waited one day before grinding them up. I did this to let them breath and get rid of any overly harsh flavors that might have developed from the roasting. The next day we ground up the seeds, filled up the small Italian percolator and brewed up a batch of Okra “Coffee”. To be fair, it is nothing like true coffee, but as far as a warming beverage it is very good and very earthy. I added a fair amount of honey and a bit of cream and really enjoyed the end result. It is fun having another way of using a favorite plant and always good to not waste more than we have to. Okra seed “Coffee” will never replace coffee or Earl Gray tea for me, but it is good and I will continue to do this from now on. Give it a try if you ever find yourself with extra okra seed and enjoy a new warm beverage. Cheers!