Okra a new New England plant

  • Pickled peppers and red okra at the Blue Heron Farm in Charlemont. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Bill Coli fills pint canning jars with red okra, garlic spices and pickling juice at Blue Heron Farm in Charlemont. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Red okra growing at the Blue Heron Farm in Charlemont. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Bill Coli fills pint canning jars with red okra, garlic spices and pickling juice at Blue Heron Farm in Charlemont. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Jubal Coli and his father Bill Coli in the patch of red okra they grew at the Blue Heron Farm in Charlemont. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Bill Coli canning red okra at the Blue Heron Farm in Charlemont. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

For The Recorder
Published: 10/5/2021 2:25:55 PM

Gardening writer Barbara Wilde writes, “Okra is like the Mason-Dixon line of vegetable gardens, separating North from South.” It’s true that most of us here in Yankeeland don’t know what to do with okra.

Okra came to this country from Africa with enslaved people and likes a long growing season so it is mostly cultivated in the South and is rarely seen in these parts. Jubal Coli of Blue Heron Farm in Charlemont would like to make okra more visible locally.

Red okra is among the new plants with which Coli is experimenting as he and his parents, Norma and Bill Coli, ponder new directions for the farm.

Blue Heron is known for maple syrup, blueberries, Norwegian fjord horses, and vacation rentals. All of these enterprises continue to flourish, although the horse breeding has been cut back in recent years.

Nevertheless, Jubal Coli is considering adding products to the farm, especially okra.

“I’ve just been looking at the future,” he said in a recent interview. “Diversification is really the way for us to go. Looking for new revenue streams, as well as experimenting with crops that aren’t common around here.”

A Southern friend suggested he try growing okra. His first, small crop of red okra — he chose it because of its beauty, although it tastes similar to traditional green okra — came in last year, and he is now busy harvesting this year’s crop.

Despite needing a long growing season, okra is definitely viable in New England if it is planted as soon as possible after the last frost, generally after Memorial Day, he told me.

He began picking in late August. His okra plants are taller than I am although Coli still towers above them. They sport lovely blossoms; okra is part of the hibiscus family. And the red pods are bright and useful for a variety of recipes, from the traditional Louisiana gumbo to the pickles Bill Coli makes with them.

I asked Jubal Coli what he likes to do with okra. It is actually a fruit, but like tomatoes and squash is generally used as a vegetable.

“I like fried things,” he said with a smile.

He likes to bread small pieces of okra and fry them. He also likes to cook them with tomatoes and serve the combination over rice.

He hopes in future years to sell his okra locally to small grocery stores and restaurants. “There’s some definite interest in the local area,” he noted. “We brought a couple of pounds down to Wells Provisions [the new restaurant/food shop in Charlemont].”

Coli is experimenting with a couple of other crops as well. An heirloom corn variety known as Bloody Butcher because of its vivid red hue has been used to make cornmeal in this country for a couple of hundred years, he informed me. He wants to start grinding his own meal with the corn in the future.

He has also begun to grow edamame, the soybean pods that have become popular in recent years as a tasty source of protein.

Like okra, both the red corn and the edamame are unusual for our area because they require a longer growing season than many native plants. Coli argues that our season is not too short for them, however.

The fact that few farms in western Massachusetts produce these plants is both a boon and a challenge. Their relative uniqueness will make Blue Heron Farm stand out.

They are not as well known as the corn, tomatoes, and squash that abound in local farm stands, however.

Consequently, Blue Heron Farm will have to educate the public in order to establish a market for the crops and related products like the cornmeal Jubal Coli wants to make and the pickles his father prepares using the okra on the farm.

Coli is up to the challenge. “I’m at the point where I want to share,” he said, “to have the farm be a community resource.”

Workshops and cooking classes may be in the future for Blue Heron Farm. I have volunteered to help with the classes.

Meanwhile, here is the recipe Bill Coli uses to pickle okra in his cozy, colorful 19th-century kitchen. Although Blue Heron Farm isn’t selling okra commercially yet, I have seen it at Foster’s Supermarket in Greenfield and at the Bars Farm in Deerfield in the past.

A note: It is important to stir the pickles before sealing them to remove as much air as possible. Okra is not uniformly dense so the pods hold extra air. If one doesn’t release the air bubbles, they will come out during processing, keeping the tops of the okra pods from being submerged in the brine.

This is not an unsurmountable problem; it happened to me, and Bill Coli suggested that I rotate my jars from time to time to make sure that both ends of the pods absorb brine. It’s best nipped in the okra bud, however.

Blue Heron Farm Okra Pickles

If you’re unable to find okra, feel free to adapt this recipe for other vegetables. Bill Coli also uses it for sliced bell peppers from his garden, adding some onion slices for extra flavor. In that case, he goes up to 2½ cups each of vinegar and water and increases the maple syrup to 1 or 1¼ cups.

Ingredients:

approximately 8 cloves garlic (peeled)

approximately 1/4 cup pickling spices

approximately 1 teaspoon lemon juice

1½ pounds okra pods

2 cups vinegar (Bill Coli uses white distilled vinegar)

2 cups water

3 tablespoons salt

2 tablespoons maple syrup

Instructions:

Sterilize four pint jars, lids, and bands. While the jars are still warm, trim the okra pods so that they fit into the jars with 1/4- to 1/2-inch head space. Into each jar, pack 2 cloves garlic, 1 tablespoon spices, 1/4 teaspoon lemon juice, and trimmed okra pods as needed (alternating which end is up to maximize space).

Bring the vinegar, water, salt, and syrup to a boil. Pour this mixture over the vegetables in the jars, leaving the same head space you left with the okra. Use a clean knife or other implement to stir the okra to release air.

Cover the jars with lids and bands, and process them in a boiling-water bath for 15 minutes (20 minutes if your elevation is higher than 3000 feet). Remove the jars from the hot water, and leave them on the counter to cool and seal for several hours. Check the seals before you place the jars in a cool, dark place to mature.

The pickles will be ready to eat in four to six weeks. Refrigerate leftover pickles after you open the jars. Makes about four pints (depending on the length of your okra).

Tinky Weisblat is the award-winning author of “The Pudding Hollow Cookbook,” “Pulling Taffy,” and “Love, Laughter, and Rhubarb.” Visit her website, TinkyCooks.com.




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