The following is an excerpt from Chris Smith’s new book The Whole Okra: A Seed to Stem Celebration (Chelsea Green Publishing, June 2019) and is reprinted with permission from the publisher.
Eating okra seeds is no special novelty, because everyone who has crunched into an okra pod has consumed them. However, as with so many of the fruits that we eat, the market maturity (the stage at which we like to eat it) of okra pods is quite different from their botanical maturity (when the seeds within are fully formed and capable of germinating). When considering the whole plant, or in this case the whole okra, we must learn not just what parts we can eat, but also when and how those parts are best eaten. Clark Barlowe, an award-winning chef in Charlotte, North Carolina, has been described as the kitchen scrap aficionado. In his own words, “Our farmers are our friends and we take the responsibility of using their products very seriously. To waste any part of it, even something widely recognized as ‘trash,’ is a disservice to them, and something I cannot bring myself to do.”
Chef Barlowe puts this philosophy into practice when he extracts the soft and tender immature seeds from slightly overgrown okra pods for use in a variety of dishes. As is so often the case, though, Barlowe’s use of the seeds isn’t a new discovery, more of a rediscovery. I came across a 1908 newspaper report about okra seeds that noted, “Sometimes the young seeds are cooked like green peas and sometimes they are boiled and served for a salad with French dressing.” As with most things okra, I feel sure there is a deeper link to culinary Africa in the use of the seeds. Barlowe often blanches and freezes the seeds for winter use. He said there is very little difference in character between the fresh and the frozen product, which is a quality he seeks when preserving produce.
Chef Clark Barlowe is a creative cook, serving meals in his restaurant, Heirloom NC, using produce grown or foraged in North Carolina. As a believer in zero waste, he has gained a reputation as the kitchen-scrap aficionado. This recipe reflects his talent for turning something most farmers would compost (overgrown okra pods) into a gourmet meal. The special touches that Barlowe adds include wild foraged sumac (it grows almost weed-like in North Carolina, but can easily be sourced online), olive oil from Georgia, and lemon balm that grows near the back door of his restaurant.
Okra Seed “Couscous” Warm Salad
1⁄2 cup cucumber slices
2 Tbsp. fresh lemon balm
1⁄2 cup feta
2 cups immature okra seeds
3 Tbsp. olive oil
1⁄2 tsp. sumac
1⁄2 tsp. salt
1⁄4 tsp. finely ground black pepper
16–20 small lemon balm leaves, for garnish
Slice the cucumber thinly on a mandoline. Chiffonade (finely cut) the fresh lemon balm. Combine the lemon balm chiffonade, feta and sliced cucumber in a medium-sized mixing bowl. Toast the okra “couscous” on medium heat in olive oil for 2–3 minutes or until heated through. Combine the okra with the rest of the ingredients in a mixing bowl and toss to combine. Season with sumac, salt and black pepper. Garnish with small lemon balm leaves. Serve warm.
Okra Seed Couscous photo by Peter Taylor.
Chris Smith is a garden writer and homesteading consultant who serves on the board of Slow Food Asheville. When he is not okra-ing, he can sometimes be found at Sow True Seed, an Asheville-based open-pollinated seed company. The Whole Okra is his first book.