Wine Advisor FoodLetter: Fancified okra and tomatoes

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 Fancified okra and tomatoes
We kick up this traditional Southern summer dish a bit by adding the bold flavors of bacon and blue cheese.
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Fancified okra and tomatoes

As summer drags on (and on and on), late-summer vegetables are coming into season, and one of the best of these is okra.

Okra is native to Africa, a hot-climate vegetable that needs a long growing season, so it's common in places like the American South, where long, hot summers and an African heritage coincide. It's a pretty vegetable, best chosen when its pale-green, finger-like pods are bright and dry.

Okra boasts a natural affinity for onions and tomatoes, and its "meaty" flavor can round out a vegetarian dish with a hearty richness that fulfills any craving for meat; while for carnivores it makes a great addition to dishes involving chicken or pork.

Many people fear okra for its perceived "slimy" nature, and the raw vegetable, when cut, does indeed give off a shiny, mucilaginous substance that's not easy to love. The good news, however, is that cooking it properly banishes this problem completely: Five or 10 minutes of browning in the skillet and it's gone.

Okra is the central ingredient in gumbo, and it often turns up in a hearty vegetable dish stewed with tomatoes and onions. The other night, blessed with a bag full of fine, fresh small okra pods, I put together a flavorful summer dinner based on okra and tomatoes over rice, "fancifying" it a bit by adding the bold flavors of bacon and Point Reyes blue cheese as a quick garnish. For a vegetarian version, simply leave out the bacon and use 3 tablespoons olive oil to saute and brown the vegetables.


(Serves two)

2 or 3 slices bacon
24 small pods okra, enough to make about 2 cups (one-half kilo)
1/2 cup (120g) chopped Vidalia or other sweet onion
2 good-size garlic cloves
1 or 2 ripe tomatoes, enough to make about the same amount when peeled, seeded and chopped
Sea salt
Black pepper
Dried red-pepper flakes
2 ounces (60g) blue cheese


1. Cook the bacon over medium heat in a heavy black-iron skillet, turning it occasionally, until it's browned and crisp. Remove to drain on paper towels and crumble it when it's dry, reserving the bacon fat in the skillet.

2. While the bacon browns, wash the okra pods and slice them into thick rounds, discarding the caps if you prefer. (HINT: Choose smaller pods no longer than 1 1/2 or 2 inches if possible. The larger pods may look impressive, but they tend to become woody and fibrous with size.)

3. Chop the onion coarsely and mince the garlic fine. Peel, seed and dice the tomatoes and season them with salt and pepper to taste.

4. Put the skillet with its reserved bacon fat back over medium-high heat and saute the onions until they're translucent. Stir in the sliced okra and cook, stirring frequently, until the okra "slime" has completely disappeared and the vegetables are starting to brown. (You can add a little water from time to time if necessary to keep them from sticking and burning, but you want to keep it on the dry side so the veggies will brown.) Add the garlic, sautee for a moment or two, then stir in the chopped tomatoes.

5. Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer for another 15 minutes or until the okra is soft. Don't there's no need overcook them into mush; I like okra best when it still has a little texture. Check seasoning and serve with steaming white rice, topped with the crumbled bacon and blue cheese.

MATCHING WINE: These bold flavors will easily stand up to a lighter, fruity-style red, and it worked just fine with a Cannonau di Sardegna, a Sardinian Grenache. It will work and play nicely with a fuller-bodied white, too, perhaps a Southern Italian white like Greco di Tufo or a Marsanne blend from the Southern Rhone or Provence.

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