Okra and Edible Oils at Monticello

Posted by Chris Smith
Okra Flower

When people struggle with their gardens, I always tell them not to worry. The great thing about gardening is that there is always next year! Keep good notes, learn from your mistakes, and every year you’ll develop as a gardener.

What I have come to realize more recently, is that there is a wealth of knowledge from people who did this centuries before I was even born! Thomas Jefferson is one of those people and his knowledge has crept up in two of my favorite topics: Okra and regionally grown edible oils.

 

In Notes on the State of Virginia, begun in 1781, Jefferson records that the gardens of his native state “yield musk melons, water melons, tomatoes, okra, pomegranates, figs, and the esculent plants of Europe.”

 

I love the use of the rather old-timey work esculent. The latin binomial for okra is Abelmoschus esculentus. And esculentus in latin means delicious or full of food. With okra, that is an apt description. I am experimenting with all the varying applications of okra with a stem to stamen mentality. The roasted seeds, the young leaves, the dramatic flowers and those most polarizing of pods. My most recent application that might win you over is okra pizza, my next version will incorporate okra seed flour into the crust.

Okra Pizza

This year I am growing Cows Horn Okra from Monticello seeds and the plants are looking wonderful. The large pods stay tender and the pods are smooth. With any luck I’ll have some to share at my presentation. Cows Horn Okra doesn’t just have big pods, it’s leaves are huge too. I’ve eaten okra greens as microgreens, salad greens and (when larger) cooking greens. My next experiment is okra leaf chips…

Okra Micro Greens

I have also pressed okra seed for oil, which is a light green-yellow oil fantastic as a dressing. Jefferson himself does not write of pressing okra seed oil, but he was in search of a regionally grown olive oil substitute.

Thomas Jefferson planted Sesame, or “Benni,” for many years at Monticello in order to press a salad oil from the seeds. He wrote in 1811, “I did not believe there existed so perfect a substitute for olive oil.”

Knowing I would be presenting on edible oils at the Heritage Harvest Festival this year, I was excited to try growing some sesame seeds myself. I’m sad to report that they did not grow very well and then rambunctious cowpeas smothered them. However, I am not ready to give up as Jefferson himself struggled in the beginning.

His own early efforts to extract oil from the tiny seeds of the Sesame plant did not meet with great success, and by 1811, after three years of trying, he had only “two or three bushels” and a “gallon of oil” to show for it.

I wonder what else Jefferson pressed for oil? I have tried pumpkin and sunflower, which are my main go to oil seeds. I enjoy pressing cucumber seeds, okra seeds, flax seeds and summer squash seeds although the yields are lower. My feeling is that tasting your first home pressed oil is akin to the sensation of eating your first homegrown tomato. The thing you thought was a tomato taste will never satisfy again.

Oil Press

I use a small hand cranked press, which I will bring to my presentation to demonstrate. Fresh unrefined oils are not very shelf stable, but seeds and nuts will store for a long long time. I save all my own seeds and then have the option to eat them, grind them for flours or butters, or press them for oil. It’s been a fascinating journey to incorporate home pressed oil into my own food systems!

I will have some fresh pressed oil to share at my presentation, as well as some home pressed infused oils for herbal treatments. Come and open your mind to a whole new culinary adventure!

Chris Smith