Embrace the slime in this Southern okra relish
“Mucilaginous.” I remember the first time I heard that word. It was in reference to okra, the slimy green pod vegetable I grew up eating virtually every meal in the South. Before then, I had never thought about the slime of the vegetable. We ate it deep-fried and served with a spiced ranch-like dressing called comeback sauce. We ate it sautéed in bacon fat and served up alongside rice. It had a unique texture, sure, but it was one I loved. Only after I heard that word, and the blurts of disgust it elicited from people around me, did I know it wasn’t for everyone.
But my favorite okra dish — okra and tomato relish — leaned into that goopy quality instead of trying to hide it under a cornmeal coating or slicked with bacon grease. A cousin of the more widely known chow-chow relish, which was essentially green tomatoes and peppers cooked down then sweetened with sugar and soured with vinegar, the okra and tomato version is all chopped okra and onions, pocked with large chunks of canned whole tomatoes. It was a rustic, cold sauce that we’d spoon over piping-hot cream peas or steaming wedges of crunchy cornbread and use as a de facto dip for fried catfish fillets. Thanks to the stewed okra’s gooeyness, it had the texture of slippery ketchup, and we used it as such.
My version, a slightly refined take on the one I ate growing up, has all the same components, but with a finer chop and less sugar to make it feel more like a condiment you could eat as a side dish. When you see okra in the markets this time of year, buy them to make this relish — double or triple the recipe if you need to — because it keeps a long time in the fridge and you’ll be looking for excuses to eat it on anything. It might not win any beauty contests but it will elicit bursts of pleasure from those you serve it to, or at least those with good taste to embrace the goo.
Okra and Tomato Relish
45 minutes. Makes 5 cups.
Although this relish makes the most of the summer bounty of okra, I use canned tomatoes here, as my mother did, for their bright red color and intense flavor. But you can absolutely use fresh heirloom, vine-ripe or even cherry tomatoes here instead; simply swap them out for the same weight as the canned ones. And if you have regular raisins and don’t want to make a special trip for golden ones, you can use them here too, but I prefer the lighter, less murky taste of golden raisins, especially in this summery relish.
- 1 pound okra, preferably all about 4 inches long
- 2 tablespoons everyday olive oil
- 1 large yellow onion, roughly chopped
- 1 celery stalk, roughly chopped
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 (28-ounce) can whole peeled tomatoes, drained, roughly chopped
- 1/2 cup red or white wine vinegar
- 1/2 cup golden raisins
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 1/2 cup roughly chopped flat-leaf parsley leaves
1 Cut the okra pods in half lengthwise, then cut them in half crosswise so you have 4 pieces from each pod.
2 Heat the oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the okra, onion and celery, season with salt and pepper, and cook, covered slightly and stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are soft and beginning to brown, 10 to 12 minutes.
3 Stir in the chopped tomatoes, vinegar, raisins and sugar, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to maintain a gentle simmer, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the okra is starting to fall apart and the mixture is thickened, about 15 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat.
4 Stir in the parsley and season with salt and pepper. Let the relish cool to room temperature, then transfer to a glass jar with a lid and refrigerate at least 1 day before serving. The relish will keep in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.
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