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Recipes and Stories

29 July 2014: Really Fresh Okra and Tomatoes—Okra and Tomato Salad

Fresh Okra and Tomato Salad

One of my favorite summer snacks is a handful of small, raw okra pods — eaten as is, without so much as a speck of salt or pepper. When very young, small, and tender, okra has a delicate flavor that knows no equal. And contrary to what you might expect if you’ve ever chopped or sliced it for a gumbo, or tried to eat it when it was overcooked, the raw pods are not in the least gooey or sticky, but are as crisp and refreshing as a chilled cucumber.

My affection for raw okra is nothing new or unique, and I came by it honestly. Following an old family tradition, my mother used to mix cut raw okra into our summer salads. But it also turns up raw on tables just about anywhere that it grows throughout the world

In case you are a novice to okra, here are a few facts on this quintessentially Southern vegetable. To begin with, it’s not really Southern at all, but African: it’s the seed pod of an annual flowering hibiscus (Abelmoschus esculentus) native to that continent. In fact, both our commonly used names for it, “okra” and “gumbo,” have their origins in African languages. It’s also by no means unique to the South, but is found anywhere in the Western Hemisphere that has been touched by the African slave trade, from Brazil to the Caribbean and Northern Virginia.

Though it has been an indelible part of the South’s botanical and culinary lexicography at least since the early days of the American Republic, how and when it got to our region isn’t altogether clear: like so many things in food history, the details of its migration have been lost to time.

But never mind all that. What matters is that it’s here and as indelibly and delicious a part of our foodways culture as biscuits and sweet tea.

Fresh Okra and Tomato Salad

In the South, the pairing of okra and tomatoes is to our cuisine what pasta and tomatoes is to Italy’s. When the two vegetables are simmered together, they become so much more than their parts. But they don’t have to undergo a trial by fire to work well together. Here, all the elements of a traditional gumbo—okra, tomatoes, bacon, onion, and garlic—are brought together with virtually no cooking, yet there is not a thing lacking in their union.

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 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
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. Remove them with a slotted spoon and drain them on paper towels. Turn off the heat under the pan. 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 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 it among individual salad bowls and serve immediately.

Note: When I was growing up, and even as late as the1990s, the only okra available to most of us in the South was green. Today, a number of varieties are turning up in local farmers’ markets, from fat, stubby little pods to the long, graceful ones that came by the nickname “lady fingers” honestly, ranging in color from pale green to bright red and purple. Though the more colorful varieties lose these vivid color when cooked, they’re ideal for using raw in salads. Likewise, many old varieties of 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.

Recipe 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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