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Recipes and Stories

2 August 2015: Fresh Okra and Tomato Salad

Southern cooking that you may not know about: raw okra and tomatoes weaving their combined magic in the salad bowl.

The union of okra and tomatoes in the pot is an inspired marriages that happens to be one of the great foundations of Southern cooking. From vegetable soup and gumbo to that soul-comforting triad of okra, onion, and tomato simmered together into a thick stew that can be served forth as a side dish, or over rice as a vegetarian main dish, or as the base for heartier main dishes with meat, poultry, and fish or shellfish stirred into the pot.

The virtues of the union in the salad bowl are less commonly known, in part because many Southerners don’t realize that okra doesn’t have to be cooked to reach its fullest potential. Which is too bad.

My mother often mixed raw okra into our salads when I was a child. It was an old tradition in her North Georgia/Carolina family, and I was grown before I knew that most Southerners had never heard of doing such a thing. But my mother and her family were in no way unique: practically any place on the planet where this lovely vegetable is known, from Africa to the Middle East to Southeast Asia, it’s eaten raw.

Don’t feel you need to confine raw okra to the salad bowl: it’s also a great addition to a tray of crudités: Choose pods no longer than 2-3 inches long, wash, pat dry and trim the stems but leave the caps intact. Serve them with your favorite dipping sauce as you would broccoli florets or carrot, celery, and cucumber sticks.

Fresh Okra and Tomato Salad

The key to success with this salad is to have really fresh, small pods of okra. More mature pods that are not freshly harvested just won’t have the same distinctive flavor and delicacy.

Serves 4

4 extra-thick-cut slices bacon, cut crosswise into 1/4-inch wide lardons
8 Romaine or Bibb lettuce leaves
4 small ripe heirloom tomatoes or 1 pint ripe cherry or grape tomatoes (see note)
16 small pods fresh okra, less than 3 inches long (red or green or a mix, see note)
½ small Vidalia Sweet or red onion, stem and root ends trimmed, split lengthwise and thinly sliced
10-12 large basil leaves or 1/3 cup (not packed) mint leaves
1 small clove garlic
Salt
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons fruity extra-virgin olive oil
Whole black pepper in a mill

1. Cook the bacon lardons in a heavy-bottomed pan over medium-low heat until golden and crisp. Turn off the heat and remove them with a slotted spoon and drain them on paper towels. Wash the lettuce leaves under cold running water and spin dry. Wash and dry the tomatoes; if using heirloom varieties, cut out the core (stem end) and quarter them (they shouldn’t need to be peeled); if using cherry or grape tomatoes, cut them in half. Trim the stem end of the okra, wash it under cold running water, and pat dry.

2. Tear the leaves in bite-sized pieces into a large salad bowl. Add the onion and tomatoes. Cut the okra in half lengthwise and add it to the bowl. Tear the large basil leaves into small bits; if using mint, tear only the large leaves, leaving smaller ones whole. Scatter the herbs over the salad. Add the bacon lardons.

3. Lightly crush the garlic clove with the side of a knife blade, peel, and chop it. Sprinkle a little salt over it and, with the edge of the knife blade, rub it to a puree. Scrape this into a small mixing bowl and add the vinegar and mustard to it. Whisk until smooth, then slowly whisk in the oil a few drops at a time. Taste and adjust the salt and season with a generous grinding of pepper. Pour the dressing over the salad and toss until it is glossy and evenly coated. Divide among individual salad bowls and serve immediately.

Note: When I was growing up, and even as late as this book’s first publication in the1990s, the only okra available to us was green. Now bright red and purple okra are turning up in local farmers’ markets. Though they lose their vivid color when cooked, they’re ideal for using raw in salads. Likewise, heirloom tomatoes are turning up in our gardens and markets in a rainbow of colors—purple, yellow, pink, and green; mixing them into this salad makes it as lovely to look at as it is to eat.

Recipes and text adapted from Beans, Greens, & Sweet Georgia Peaches, 2nd Edition (Globe Pequot Press), copyright © 2014 by Damon Lee Fowler, all rights reserved.

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