Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Summer Quinoa Salad with Fresh Okra

Oh my Okra - I had been waiting for this green, starry gem to appear on the farmers’ tables since it hit 100º a couple of weeks ago. And to my pleasure, it arrive last week. Okra grows well in high heat and drought conditions, so naturally I became quite familiar with it when I moved to Arizona. I had no idea what it looked or tasted before relocating. When I signed up to receive a weekly share from a local farm, it became quite obvious that only certain things will grow well in the desert during the middle of August. Okra, okra and more okra. It was love at first bite – after I got over the shock of pearly seeds in the middle. I had done my research upon receiving my first batch and picked up a few tips that helped to fight the common misconceptions regarding this pretty pod.

Poor vegetable – such an underdog. When it comes to popularity and general reaction when mentioned in passing conversation, okra does not have a good reputation. Slimy, hard to cook, bad texture, weird seeds....it saddens me to think this is the only view some have of the tender tube. Okra is much like brussel sprouts or beets – highly misunderstood, commonly overcooked, and full of potential. I always feel compelled to rescue a misjudged food from neglect and damnation such as this sorry but scrumptious bunch. I’ll feature beets at dinner parties or serve caramelized brussel sprouts for someone who couldn’t recognize them on a plate for a million bucks but still thinks they are nasty. With a few tricks up my sleeves, I was ready to rejuvinate the okra aura.

Okra is at its best when prepared in the simplest of ways or eaten raw. Selecting okra is a skill no one should ignore as it’s easy to develop and critical to enjoying it. Some pods tend to be very fibrous – you’ll feel like you are chewing on tiny sticks. If you are careful when you select them, you’ll feel which ones will be tender and which might be more like bamboo floss. When preparing them, you only need to know one thing…don’t overcook it. Overcooking okra is what makes it slimy, mushy, and tasteless. Southern cooks would probably shake me like a shake n’ bake if they caught me saying this: okra does NOT need to be stewed. Not in gumbo, not in jambalaya. Do not boil it for 10 minutes; do not stew it in a sauce for a half hour. It doesn’t need to absorb spices or flavors, because its flavor is so delicate and light. Okra can simply be sautéed with salt and pepper for a few minutes, until bright green and just tender. Add it on top of a nice southern stew or gumbo for a good crunchy touch.

In this recipe, the okra is left raw and sliced into small chunks. The smaller the pod, the better it will be in raw form. Even raw okra has a touch of “slime” to it when you start cutting, but you won’t notice it in the salad. This recipe also features yellow pear tomatoes that also grow well in hotter temperatures and tend to be included in the same share from the farm. If you have to pass on the raw okra, at least try it sautéed or in its very best form….southern fried okra.

Summer Quinoa Salad with Fresh Okra
Serves: 3-4
Prep time: 10 minutes


For the Dressing
3 T. Red wine vinegar
2 tsp. Walnut or olive oil
2 tsp. Thyme, dried (or 1 T. fresh)
2 tsp. Dijon mustard
1 tsp. Agave nectar
¾ tsp. Salt
½ tsp. Freshly ground black pepper

For the Salad
2 c. Quinoa, cooked
1 can or 1 ½ c. cooked chickpeas (drained & rinsed if using canned)
1 c. Okra, sliced into ¼ inch pieces – stems discarded
1 c. Yellow pear tomatoes (or another small, mild variety)
¾ c. Red bell pepper, diced
¾ c. Carrots, grated
¾ c. Corn, fresh or frozen
¾ c. Cucumber, diced


Whisk all dressing ingredients together in a small bowl. Adjust seasonings to taste – for a less tart dressing, add more agave and additional salt & pepper to taste. Set aside

Combing all salad ingredients in a medium or large mixing bowl. Drizzle with dressing, stirring to coat completely. Season with additional salt and pepper if necessary.

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