08/16/2010 08:51 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Meatless Monday: Okra and Other Native Americans

While Republican Kentucky Senate candidate Rand Paul is busy trying to redefine who's American, it might help to remember we are a nation of immigrants. Apple pie upon closer scrutiny, is not strictly American. Apples are not indigenous to America, they were introduced by Brits in the 1700s, who came looking to escape English rule. Our pie creds came by way of German immigrants who arrived shortly thereafter. In fact, most of our families came from somewhere else.

That's our strength. Instead, Paul wants us to exclude, to point fingers, to fear or shun what seems foreign to us, when, honey, all of us were foreign at some point. Take okra. Brought here by African slaves in the 17th century, it dates back some 10,000 years. Surely that entitles it to a pedigree. But even after all this time, many folks don't know what to do with it. So they reject it.

The knee-jerk reaction of okraphobes is to bring up the slime factor. The fault lies not with the okra but with improper okra preparation. Tender, young okra pods are not slimy, nor is mature okra, given a squeeze of lemon juice or splash of vinegar.

One of our great regional dishes, gumbo, gets its name from ngombo -- African for okra. Generations of Louisiana cooks have added it to this classic spicy stew of indigenous ingredients. A serving of okra barely comes to 30 calories, but provides loads of vitamins C and A, folate and fiber (the same cholesterol-busting fiber that's in oatmeal). While okra adds nutrients to your diet, it thickens gumbo, as well as other stews and soups, naturally.

Okra's at its seasonal best and in the markets now. It's one of your most stylish vegetables, with tapered pale green pods just a few inches long. Choose lovely little pods without blemish. Cook a million ways -- steam, pickle, roast, saute, curry, stew (and okay, yes, you can fry it but I don't need to know about it).

For all that, okra remains a hard sell. That's okay, okra can withstand abuse. It can take the heat better than you can. It's a super summer crop and grows best where it's sultry -- Africa, India (where it's known as bindi, or lady fingers), the Middle East, Turkey and Greece (where they all call it bamia) the Caribbean, South America -- and in the American South. It grows beautifully all up and down the Mississippi, the nation's great watershed.

Okra's sort of like Tallulah Bankhead -- tough, glamorous (what other vegetable comes with its own pearls?), misunderstood. Both actress and okra have roots in Alabama soil. In fact, the folks in Burkville, Alabama are gearing up for the 10th annual Okra Festival on the 28th. Burkville doesn't ostracize okra, they celebrate it. They think big picture. In paying tribute to a seasonal and local vegetable, Okra Festival honors what we've got. It celebrates who we are.

Immigration made us who we are. You know, the whole melting pot metaphor. We can thank our forefathers, whether they came here on the Mayflower, on a slave ship or on a balsera, for bringing with them to this strange new world the beloved foods from their homeland. Blended together, our diverse ancestries make for dazzling cuisine.

Wherever we're trace our ancestry, we all bring something to the table. Embrace it all, from apple pie to okra. To do otherwise would be damned un-American.

Bindi and Chickpea Masala (Curried Okra and Garbanzo Beans)

Okra and chickpeas team up in this high-protein Indian curry, a symphony of tastes and textures. Serve with brown basmati rice or whole wheat naan (Indian flatbread).

2 tablespoons canola or coconut oil
3 tablespoons fresh ginger, minced
6 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons cumin
1 tablespoon turmeric
2 teaspoons coriander
1 onion, chopped
1 pound fresh young okra pods
juice of 1 lemon
1 15-ounce can diced tomatoes
1 15-ounce can chickpeas, rinsed and drained
1 cinnamon stick
1 bunch fresh cilantro, coarsely chopped
sea salt and fresh ground pepper to taste

In a large skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add minced ginger and garlic, cumin, turmeric and coriander. Cook, stirring occasionally for about 3 to 5 minutes, until spices darken and become fragrant. Add chopped onion and continue cooking, giving an occasional stir.

Wash okra and blot dry (dry okra is not slimy okra). Leave whole if small, else cut into bite-sized pieces.

Add okra to skillet. Squeeze in lemon juice. Continue cooking for 5 minutes, stirring to prevent sticking. Add diced tomatoes. Stir well. Cover and reduce heat to low.

Continue cooking for another 15 minutes, or until okra is tender. Add cinnamon stick and chickpeas.

Let cook through another 5 minutes, then add sea salt, ground pepper and chopped cilantro and serve.

Covered and refrigerated, it keeps for several days. Flavors deepen and improve over time.

Serves 4.