Stewed Okra and Tomatoes

Mary Randolph may have given the first printed recipe for okra and tomatoes in her early-nineteenth-century The Virginia House-Wife, but evidence shows that the dish was no doubt popular in a number of Southern states years before—despite a lingering fear with some that tomatoes might be poisonous and should be cooked “with great care” and “eaten sparingly.” That tomatoes from Central America and okra from Africa were eventually paired has to be one of the most unlikely marriages in Southern cookery; it’s also one of the most sensible combinations, with the smooth texture of the okra neutralizing the acidity of the tomatoes. Although this is the ultimate dish for true okra lovers, I’m well aware that there are thousands of timid eaters (Southerners and outsiders alike) who have a horror of okra’s slimy texture; and when I see the way okra and tomatoes are so often overcooked almost to a mush, I can’t much blame them. Here the two vegetables are stewed just till soft, yielding a dish that’s not just succulent but worthy of the most sophisticated tables. If you still feel the vegetables could use a little “tightening,” just stir in a few dry bread crumbs. Many recipes call for adding sugar to okra and tomatoes, but I find this a ludicrous sacrilege.

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Ingredients

  • 4 slices bacon
  • 2 small onions, chopped
  • 1 large garlic clove, minced
  • pounds small, firm, fresh okra, stems removed, washed well, and cut into ¾-inch rounds
  • 4 ripe but firm large tomatoes, peeled and chopped
  • 1 small hot red pepper, seeded and finely chopped
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • Pinch of dried thyme
  • Pinch of dried basil
  • Cooked white rice

Method

In a large, heavy, nonreactive skillet (not cast-iron or aluminum), fry the bacon over moderate heat till crisp, drain on paper towels, crumble, and set aside.

Pour off all but about 2 tablespoons of fat from the skillet, add the onions and garlic, and cook, stirring, about 5 minutes. Add the okra, tomatoes, red pepper, salt, pepper, thyme, and basil, reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer till the okra and tomatoes are just soft but not mushy, about 15 minutes, stirring once or twice.

Serve the okra and tomatoes over mounds of rice and top each serving with crumbled bacon.