Okra is one of the most beautiful plants in a summer garden. Its flowers make it look like an exotic plant imported from a gorgeous tropical isle where the summers are mild and the humidity is bearable -- kind of like St. Louis this summer. Red okra is so pretty that I've even seen it used for landscaping.
Unfortunately, okra is also a much-maligned Southern food item, to the point where most people can't conceive of it as anything other than fried. Its problem is obvious: the slime. It's like Ghostbusters
all up on your cutting board. And while the 12-year-old science-fair participant in me wants to think up alternative uses as an industrial lubricant, it doesn't make for the tastiest eating. The flavor is bland, to be kind. It's so bland that I totally abandoned trying to write up the quick gumbo I made this week, because I couldn't figure out how to save it from its flavor vacuum.
Enter the eco-chef. There is a lot to love about Bryant Terry
. He's a food activist living in Oakland, California, working at the intersection between poverty, racism and nutrition. He advocates for urban renewal through food justice and sustainability, and he does it in a way that is hip and engaging without coming off like Poochie the dog
It also doesn't hurt that he is way handsome and has good taste in music. His cookbook, Vegan Soul Kitchen
, does a great service in the world of vegan cookbooks. He never tries to recreate standards -- he would rather reimagine classic soul-food ingredients from a fresh perspective. Think sweet potatoes and watermelon and collards in a totally different context. It's the kind of cooking that doesn't beg for the "vegan" prefix, that doesn't alienate the audience that he is trying to reach through his activism, and helps to win people's hearts through their stomachs.
Terry is realistic about okra and its challenges, so he goes for one of my favorite ways to save otherwise boring vegetables: the char. Grilling and roasting is so great because it caramelizes all of the available sugars, and gives everything an automatically more complex flavor. I'm a big fan of roasting okra (lots of oil, relatively generous salt, 400 degrees for around 30 minutes), but I'd never thought of grilling it. But since okra is usually available at the very hottest time of the year and I hate using the oven in August, it absolutely makes sense. Plus this is yet another way of using up all of those tomatoes your coworkers keep pushing on you.
Chilled and Grilled Okra, Corn, and Heirloom Tomato Salad Adapted from Bryan Terry's Vegan Soul Kitchen
I used a mixture of the easy to find green and more elusive red okra. Believe it or not, the red is significantly less slimy. I got mine from my community garden, but you may be able to hunt some down at a farmer's market (or outside Children's Hospital, where they grow it in pots). If you want your farmer of choice to grow it, let them know! Or if you have an especially sunny patch in your own yard, consider growing it yourself. It really is gorgeous.
1 1/2 pounds heirloom tomatoes, diced
1/2 small red onion (or the equivalent amount of shallots), diced
1 tbs minced basil
1 hot pepper (I used a jalapeno), seeded, ribbed, and minced
1 tsp lemon juice
Course sea salt
1 tbs extra virgin olive oil
1 lb small to medium okra pods, washed under cold water and dried
Wooden skewers, soaked in water for at least half an hour
2 large ears sweet corn, silks removed, husks left on, and soaked in cold lightly salted water for 2 hours
Freshly ground black pepper
1. Get your grilled armed and ready in whatever way you typically do that. We all have preferences, you know?
2. In a medium sized bowl, combine the tomatoes, onion, basil, pepper, lemon juice, 1/2 tsp salt and olive oil and mix well. Cover and refrigerate. Don't use the bowl that you'd like to serve this in at this point. If you're like me and don't read ahead beforehand, you will see why a few steps from now.
3. Thread five to seven okra pods onto two skewers each and set aside for later.
4. Remove corn from water and place on the grill. Close the cover and grill, turning periodically, for about 20 minutes. Once cooked thoroughly, set aside to cool.
5. Transfer the okra to the grill and cook, turning frequently, until browned and slightly crisped, 6-8 minutes. When done, set aside to cool.
6. After the corn and okra are cool, removed the husks from the corncobs, cut the kernels from the cobs and put in a large bowl. Cut the okra into 1/2-inch slices and add them to the bowl of corn.
7. Remove the tomato mixture from the fridge, thoroughly drain the juices, and add to the bowl with okra and corn. Toss, season to taste with salt and pepper and serve. I added feta to the finished salad as well, because I'm great at deveganizing recipes.Alissa
Nelson is a graduate student and compulsive buyer of cookbooks. She
enjoys scouring seed catalogs and thrift stores alike. Every Wednesday she seeks the bounty of local farmers' markets for Gut Check
-- and then cooks it.