67-County Alabama Garden Party: Henry County

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The Alabama honeysuckle border was inspired by an 18th century, Southern applique quilt. (left) Henry County Okra – Grits Dusted and Grilled, with Roasted Tomato Remoulade (right)

The Cullman Tribune is celebrating the Alabama Bicentennial (1819-2019) with statewide field reporting by Alabama Master Gardener/Botanical Artist Ben Johnson South. This year-long feature, “The 67-County Alabama Garden Party,” will spotlight different counties each week. Each county will get its own “quilt block,” along with a historical profile, and we’ll share a recipe specific to the area. At the end of the year, all 67 counties will be put in a book to commemorate the Bicentennial.

Henry County

Henry County is home to Alabama okra. It’s OKRAhoma, Alabama!  You’re doin’ fine OKRAhoma. I told some friends that I was writing about delicious, summertime-fresh, Henry County okra and asked them for suggestions for this article.

Is OKRA an acronym? Here are some safer-to-print suggestions from my playful friends: OKRA (Our Krazy Redneck Aunt); we’re Alabamians, so, of course, we all have one. OKRA (Our Kingdom Run Amok). OKRA (Our Kids Rate A+). OKRA (Opinions Keeping Relatives Away). OKRA (Oiled Kangaroos Run Awry) was from Dilcy Windham Hilley, daughter of famed Alabama storyteller, Kathryn Tucker Windham. OKRA (Open Keg Right Away) from a Methodist minister friend of mine who I’m sure meant a keg of pickles or something. OKRA (Optimism, Kindness, Resilience, Awareness) which are Alabama traits to celebrate this Bicentennial year. OKRA (Opossums Keep Running Amok) from Wendy Sack, the editor of this newspaper. OKRA (Only KrispyKremes R Acceptable). And, these last three are from foodie friends: OKRA (Our Kitchens Reveal Alabama) and OKRA (Oven Kept Really Awful). Finally, OKRA (Our Kin ‘Rrived Again) bettuh cut ‘n fry some more cause they’re gonna be hungry, always are. (To read some OKRA acronyms that weren’t quite fit to print and to add your own, please check the Ben South Facebook page.)

Henry County, established by the Alabama Territory in 1819 just prior to statehood, is in the southern part of our very Southern state. My brother taught school in Abbeville, the county seat, and whenever I’ve been there, it has been pleasant and beautiful but hot and humid like a bountiful greenhouse. This is terrain where okra thrives. You could stick a seed pod of okra in the rich soil here at daybreak and have a dishpan full to cook before the cows come home at dusk.

Some claim okra came to Alabama from southern Africa and some say southern Asia. Okra is native to both those hot and humid parts of the globe. Okra (Abelmoschus esculentus), sometimes called “ladies’ fingers,” is a flowering, mallow plant known for the goo that gushes out when you slice it. The proper term is “mucilaginous,” but most of us know it as okra slime.

I like okra anyway you cook it, but most people segregate into pro-slime or anti-slime camps. I don’t see this becoming a popular T-shirt saying but: OKRA SLIME IS GOOD FOR YOU.  Or, as they say in Screamer, Alabama in Henry County, “OKRA SLIME IS GOOD FOR YOU!!!”  Okra slime puts the “gu” in “gumbo” and is fiber and nutrient rich. In fact, the entire okra plant is edible. For example, okra leaves are good in a salad.

Here are some ways Henry County cooks these “Pods of the Gods”:

FRIED OKRA- The traditional frying technique of the American South came from Africa with the slave trade. Sliced okra is dusted with cornmeal and cooked in hot oil; if you don’t like okra slime, fry whole pods. This is a side dish or a winning tailgate treat with a dipping sauce like ranch dressing.

GARLIC OKRA- This mallow plant is indigenous to southern Asia and this technique has been popular with wok-cooking for centuries; sliced garlic and okra pods are cooked until golden and crispy.

SLIME-Y OKRA- Stewed and imbued with more fiber

GRILLED OKRA- It has become increasingly popular as Alabamians and all Southerners consume less fried food; toss pods in some oil and grill for about 6-10 minutes (Try the healthy, yummy Henry County Grits-Dusted Grilled Okra recipe, our dedicated cook, Laurie Johnson, created for this stop on “THE 67-COUNTY, ALABAMA GARDEN PARTY” road trip.)

BRAISED OKRA WITH TOMATOES- Classic meat-and-three Southern side dish with grilled sausages- the tomato acid breaks down some of the okra goo.

PICKLED OKRA- It’s not just a garnish for Bloody Mary cocktails, anymore; this is a perfect holiday or host/hostess gift and extends okra pleasure beyond the long, hot, Henry County summers.

Besides okra, here are other ways PLANTS + PEOPLE in Henry County positively and pleasurably come together in this part of south Alabama:

*ABBEVILLE FARMERS MARKET- 100 Columbia Road, First Baptist Church (enter Kirkland Street), Abbeville, AL 36310; Thursday May 31-August 8, 3-6 p.m.; ask about the berries from Grandberry Crossroads.

*HEADLAND FARMERS MARKET- 9 Park Street, Downtown Headland, Headland, AL 36345, Friday 3-7 p.m., June & July

*TAM AND JEFF PLATT FARMSTAND (Headland)

* BRETT’S GARDEN- 2030 County Road 29, Abbeville, AL 36310; these folks grow a lot of variety, check for okra in late summer.

*PLANTING AN IDEA—Henry County has great “touching stories” to share. How about creating a public garden that celebrates the way plants feel to the human touch? Think of the tough hide of the many alligators that plant tourists spy sunning themselves in this part of Alabama. And, anyone who has gathered okra remembers the bristly feel of the pods which smooths with cooking. This Alabama Texture Garden would be a charming way to teach children about the sense of touch. Think back to the books we each had in kindergarten or early years that had sandpaper and velvet teaching moments. For our “texture theme garden” I’m immediately wanting fine-texture grasses, coreopsis, airy-leaf ferns and Baby’s Breath. For alligator-hide coarse textures, we’ll want pine bark, thistles and spikey plants like yuccas and monkey grass. And, let’s have an area for waxy-leaf plants like sedums, succulents and begonias. We’ve lost touch with touch and a texture garden in Henry County could be a good place to reclaim this sensual pleasure.

Y’ALL COME to Henry County on your 67-County, Alabama Garden Party tour! Let’s get in touch here in okra’s home, OKRAhoma, Alabama.

Henry County Okra – Grits Dusted and Grilled, with Roasted Tomato Remoulade (6 servings)

While fried okra is a Southern staple, this grilled okra is beautiful, fresh and crunchy. The homemade tomato remoulade is easy and beats any that you can buy (but you can buy some in a pinch).

Roasted Tomato Remoulade Ingredients and Instructions:

  • 3 ripe Roma or similar tomatoes – halved, brushed with olive oil and roasted cut side down in a 250 F oven for about 3 hours.  Cool – can be refrigerated overnight if needed. 
  • Drain excess liquid, pull off tomato peels and puree with fork or in a small food processor. 
  • Stir remaining ingredients (below) into the puree until well blended.  Refrigerate a few hours or overnight to let flavors meld. 
  • 1 cup good mayonnaise, 1 tbsp. whole grain mustard, 1 tbsp. smashed capers, 2 tbsp. diced red onion – softened in a bit of oil or butter in the microwave for about a minute
  • To taste – 1/2 – 1 tsp. each of lemon juice, tabasco, prepared horseradish, paprika, cayenne pepper, salt, black pepper and fresh minced herbs such as parsley, chives and thyme

Grits Dusted, Grilled Okra Ingredients:

  • 30 fresh okra whole pods – rinsed and well dried
  • Olive oil
  • Salt and black pepper
  • Uncooked quick grits – only a few tablespoons

Grits Dusted, Grilled Okra Instructions:

  • Soak 12 10-inch bamboo skewers in water before grilling so they don’t burn.
  • Heat grill or indoor grill pan to medium/high heat.
  • Skewer 5 pods on 2 skewers in a ladder-like fashion so you can control them on the grill. (Place pods of similar size together for best results.)
  • Lightly brush okra with oil and sprinkle with salt, pepper and dust with grits.
  • Place the skewers on the hot grill or pan and grill about 3 minutes on each side until hot, crispy and showing grill marks.  You can decrease the time if you have a grill press that you put (hot) on the top side of the skewer while grilling.
  • Sprinkle with salt, pepper and grits dust, if desired, and enjoy with the remoulade.

 

Also, check out Alabama Bicentennial: 200 ways to save Alabama for the next 200 years.

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Ben South