One of the great flavor combinations of a Southern summer is the masterful pairing of okra and tomatoes. This near perfect mating was not discovered down here, nor is it limited to our corner of the globe, but we’ve certainly laid claim to it and made it peculiarly our own.
While its origins are lost in history, the evidence points back to West Africa, where okra is indigenous, and where it is believed that tomatoes were first introduced to the continent by the Portuguese. At any rate, the combination took root and quickly spread throughout the African Diaspora of the Atlantic rim. In the South it turns up quite early, and was commonplace by the time Mary Randolph set it down in what may be its earliest printed recipe:
“Ocra and Tomatas.
Take an equal quantity of each, let the ocra be young, slice it, and skin the tomatas, put them in a pan without water, add a lump of butter, an onion chopped fine, some pepper and salt, and stew them one hour.”
— Mary Randolph, The Virginia House-wife, 1824
Practically every Southern cookbook thereafter followed her lead, and stewed okra and tomatoes became one of the South’s most iconic dishes.
‘Ochra and Tomatoes.—Use half of each; season with salt and pepper; skin the tomatoes; slice the ochra; add a little onion; add a little sugar to the tomatoes. Stew without water, three quarters of an hour; add a piece of butter the size of a walnut to each quart of the mixture, when first put in the stew-pan.
— Annabella Hill, Mrs. Hill’s New Cook Book, 1867
Sarah Rutledge included a similar dish in which the okra was gathered very small and cooked whole:
“Okra à la Daube.
Twelve tomatoes (from which take out the seeds and express the juice); two slices of lean ham; two onions, sliced; two table-spoonfuls of lard. Fry in a pot until the onions are brown. Then add the juice expressed from the tomatoes, a gill of warm water, one table-spoonful of wheat flour, one quart of young okra (just cutting off the stalk end), and a little pepper and salt. Let the whole simmer on a very low fire for three hours, observing that the okra does not get too dry. If it does, wet it sparingly with warm water, to prevent its burning.
A good addition to the daube is a beef or veal olive, put in at the same time as the okra.”
— Sarah Rutledge, The Carolina Housewife, 1847.
Lettice Bryan (The Kentucky Housewife, 1839) and other authors included the combination only in soups (see 18 July 2011: Okra Soup) and gumbos, but you can bet it was present.
The long, slow simmer in the above recipes brings out the mucilaginous qualities in okra, especially if it has been cut. That works to the advantage of a soup, where it lends thickening and body, but for a dish like this one, a little of that quality goes a long way. I use only the youngest and smallest okra, leave them whole as Miss Rutledge directed, and give the tomatoes a brief preliminary simmer before adding them to the pan so that they cook just long enough to make them tender but still firm to the bite.
Classical Southern Okra and Tomatoes
Serves 4 to 6
2 pounds ripe tomatoes
¾ pound tender young okra no longer than 2 inches
2 tablespoons bacon drippings, unsalted butter, or olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, trimmed, split lengthwise, peeled, and chopped
2 large or 3 medium cloves garlic, lightly crushed, peeled, and minced
Salt and whole black pepper in a peppermill
8-10 basil leaves
3 cups steamed long-grain rice such as Jasmine or Basmati, optional
1. Scald, peel, and seed the tomatoes over a sieve set in a bowl to catch their juices. Dice and add the tomatoes to the bowl as you go. Rinse the okra under cold, running water, gently rubbing each pod to remove the fuzz. Trim the caps (the stem end) but leave them whole.
2. Put the fat and onion into a deep, heavy skillet or sauté pan. Turn on the heat to medium and sauté, tossing often, until golden, about 5-to-8 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté until fragrant, about half a minute. Add the tomatoes and raise the heat to medium high. Bring it to a full boil and lower the heat to a gentle simmer. Season well with salt, pepper, and cayenne and simmer until the tomatoes begin to break down, about 15-20 minutes.
3. Add the okra and raise the heat to bring it back to a simmer, then lower the heat once more and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the okra is tender but still firm and holding its color, about 10-15 minutes longer. Taste and adjust the seasonings and simmer a moment longer to allow the flavors to meld. Turn off the heat. Turn it out into a warm serving bowl, and tear the basil into small bits over it. Serve hot, over rice, if liked.