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Summer foods: Okra love it or hate it

Virginia Willis, Special to CNN | 8/14/2013, 12:10 p.m.
This week, it’s all about okra.
Folks either love okra or they hate it. No one - veritably no one - is in the middle. Virginia Willis

— One thing is for certain: If the weather is hot, okra will grow.

There are actually 50 species of wild and cultivated okra around the world. According to the USDA, okra grows best in zones 4a through 11 in the United States. One acre of okra usually produces 200 to 250 bushels of okra, or approximately 600 to 750 pounds. That is a lot of gumbo! Depending on the variety, the plant will tower up to 12 feet in the Southern garden. Clemson Spineless is the favorite hybrid of Southern gardeners, but many heirloom varieties are reemerging from the garden shed, including Star of David, a stumpy star-shaped pod; Hill Country Red, a vivid velvety red okra from Texas; and Perkins Mammoth Long Pod, an okra varietal that produces pods up to 16 inches in length -- and still tastes good!

On that note, most okra doesn’t taste good when it’s that long; it becomes tough and woody. In general, look for young, small pods no longer than 4 inches, depending on the variety. There is a reason okra is called ladyfingers in some countries. Seek out pods smaller than a lady’s finger! At the market, buy okra that is firm, unblemished and brightly colored. Green is the most common color available, but you may also find red or deep burgundy varieties, even pale green, almost white, especially at local farmers markets. Make sure to avoid limp, bruised, blemished and moldy pods.

To get you started, here are my top five tips to get you past the slime, followed by a very unorthodox grilled gumbo that keeps the both the slime -- and time -- factor to a minimum.

Top Five Slime Busting Tips:

Choose small pods.

Wash and dry okra very, very thoroughly.

Don’t cut okra into pieces; cook whole pods.

Add an acid like tomato, lemon juice, vinegar or wine when cooking.

Overcooking produces more slime! Don’t overcook okra.

Grilled Shrimp and Okra “Gumbo”

Serves 6

Leave the soup pot in the cupboard! Succulent shrimp and spicy Andouille sausage team up with sweet onion, tomatoes and okra for a delicious dish that tastes like gumbo but doesn’t take hours to cook. This dish is going to absolutely knock your socks off.

1 pound large shrimp (21-25 count), peeled and deveined

12 ounces fully cooked Andouille sausage, halved lengthwise

1 pint grape tomatoes

12 ounces finger-size okra, stems trimmed

1 onion, preferably Vidalia, sliced into 1/4-inch rings

1 red bell pepper, cored, seeded, and cut into strips

1 poblano or green bell pepper, cored, seeded and cut into quarters

1/4 cup pure olive oil

2 teaspoons Creole or Cajun seasoning, plus more to taste

1/4 cup ketchup, warmed

4 green onions, white and pale green parts only, chopped

Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

Hot cooked rice, for serving

Prepare a charcoal fire using about 6 pounds of charcoal and burn until the coals are completely covered with a thin coating of light gray ash, 20 to 30 minutes. Spread the coals evenly over the grill bottom, position the grill rack above the coals and heat until medium-hot (when you can hold your hand 5 inches above the grill surface for no longer than 3 or 4 seconds). Or, for a gas grill, turn on all burners to high, close the lid and heat until very hot, 10 to 15 minutes.