With okra, as with most things in life, size does matter. When you’re talking okra pods, smaller is better—tender and tasty. Let them grow too big and they become tough and woody. However, when it comes to the plants themselves, bigger is definitely better. After a summer of more garden failures than I care to count, the little plot beside my house somehow managed to produce a small crop of enormous okra plants:
One of them is at least 16 feet tall; to pick the okra at the top, I have to grab the stalk and bend the whole plant over. From these four plants, one of which is a dwarf variety, I gather about ten pods a day, which I save up until I have enough for roasting or gumbo. If I skip picking them for even one day, the pods grow to five or six inches in length and become too tough to be good to eat. Recently, I left them unpicked for two days and when I harvested the ten overgrown pods, they alone weighed almost a pound. Interesting, yes, but inedible.
With so much okra to use up, we’ve been enjoying a lot of gumbo lately, with different ingredients depending on what’s the the refrigerator. Yesterday I got a craving for sweet potatoes and decided to create a gumbo to fit my mood, with tender chunks of sweet potatoes and enriched with a secret ingredient: peanut butter. Using peanut butter in gumbo may sound a little strange until you consider that gumbo, which gets its name from the Bantu word for okra, is similar to and probably descended from stews common in West Africa, where peanuts are a staple. The one tablespoon I used here contributes just a subtle flavor, but it’s enough to make this one of my husband’s and my favorite gumbos.
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 1 large green pepper, chopped
- 2 ribs celery, chopped
- 4 cloves garlic clove, chopped
- 7- 8 cups water or vegetable broth
- 2 15-ounce cans diced tomatoes (fire-roasted preferred)
- 1 1/2 cups cooked chickpeas, rinsed and drained
- 14-16 ounces sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
- 16 ounces okra, trimmed and sliced
- 1-2 teaspoon salt (to taste)
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
- 2 bay leaves
- 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper (or to taste)
- 1 teaspoon Tabasco or other hot pepper sauce (I use a favorite hot sauce that isn’t as spicy as Tabasco)
- 1 teaspoon paprika (smoked or regular)
- 2 teaspoons thyme
- 1/2 teaspoon liquid smoke flavoring
- 1 tablespoon natural peanut butter
- Heat a large pot. Add the onions and a pinch of baking soda (optional but speeds browning). Cook, stirring, until onions brown, adding water by the teaspoon if needed to prevent sticking.
- Add the pepper, celery, and garlic and cook for 2 more minutes.
- Add 7 cups water or vegetable broth and tomatoes, stirring to combine. Then add all the remaining ingredients except the liquid smoke and peanut butter. Simmer uncovered until sweet potatoes are tender and just close to falling apart, at least an hour to give flavors a chance to mingle, adding extra water or broth if needed. Just before serving, stir in the liquid smoke and peanut butter (it helps if you mix the peanut butter with a couple tablespoons of the hot broth first). Remove bay leaves and serve over rice.
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