Eggplant and okra are both in abundance right now at my local farmer's market, so I bought enough for a few recipes this week. Though we often think of eggplant (aka aubergine) as European Mediterranean and okra as African or Asian, the two vegetables are featured together in some traditional South Asian, and North and West African dishes.
As much as these two vegetables are loved many they are also hated by many: Eggplant for its bitter taste and texture, and okra for its gummy liquid insides. I must confess that I cringed every time my beloved grandmother broke out the jar of homemade okra and tomatoes from the pantry.
Used to be that the only way I could stand okra was if it was used to thicken a gumbo or add girth to a vegetable stew, but I recently enjoyed a dish of tender gum-free okra at a Thai restaurant and loved it so much that I resorted to eating the tender pods with my fingers (and licking said fingers.)
Turns out the same technique used to de-bitter eggplant and help it to keep its shape during cooking also works for okra - that is, tossing cut pieces of the vegetable with salt to draw out the moisture, then rinsing clean and drying before sautéing with oil. The result is firm, dense eggplant and bright green and plump okra that don't mush up when tossed together. I roasted some garlic and dressed with cherry tomatoes and a bit of spicy harissa sauce. Enjoyed with some crusty bread and a glass of Pinot Grigio, this will change your mind about these two nutritional and flavor powerhouses.
For the Ragout:
2 cloves garlic, unpeeled
6 small eggplant, quartered, or two large eggplant, cut into 2 inch cubes
10 pods okra, sliced lengthwise
1 pint cherry tomatoes
1 small red onion, sliced
Extra virgin olive oil
Parsley, for finishing
1. Preheat oven to 375F. Tear off a square of tin foil large enough to make a nice packet around the garlic cloves. Place the cloves in the center and drizzle with olive oil. Gather up the edges of the foil and make a nice hershey kiss-like packet around the garlic clove. Place on a pie plate and roast in the oven for about 40-45 minutes. Remove from the oven and set aside.
2. Place the eggplant in one bowl and the okra in another bowl. Salt both generously with fine kosher salt and spread out on paper towels. Let drain for 20 minutes.
3. Rinse the okra and eggplant well and dry well with paper towels but keep separate. Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a large heavy bottom pot or deep heavy bottom pan over medium high heat. When the oil starts to shimmer add a layer of the okra, cut side down, and cook until sizzling and browned, about 2 -3 minutes. Turn over and cook for about another 2 minutes. Remove from the pot and place on plate. Add the last layer of okra and repeat, removing from the the pot when browned and bright green. Set okra aside.
4. Add another 2 tablespoons of olive oil to the pot. When it shimmers, add the eggplant and saute until well browned on all sides.
5. Add the onion and salute until slightly browned. Then add the cherry tomatoes and saute for a minute or two, until bright red and the skins start to pucker a little bit. Add a pinch of salt, toss, and turn the heat down to low.
6. Squeeze the garlic cloves, which should now be a soft paste, directly out if the skin and into the pot. Discard the garlic skins. Remove the pot from the heat and toss the vegetables gently to flavor the ragout with the garlic, adding a drizzle of olive oil to taste.
7. Top with fresh chopped parsley and serve with Harissa on the side for heat.
For the Harissa:
1 tablespoon whole coriander seeds
3 large garlic cloves, peeled
4 whole roasted red peppers
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon chopped pickled cayenne peppers, or 2 tablespoons dried crushed red pepper
1 tablespoon honey
1. In a small skillet, toast the coriander seeds until fragrant. Add to the bowl of a food processor.
2. Add a teaspoon of olive oil to the skillet and saute the garlic cloves until shiny and lightly brown. Add to to the food processor along with the red peppers, cayenne peppers or crushed pepper, and honey. Pulse until smooth. Slowly add the olive oil and pulse until just combined. Serve as a spicy condiment with vegetable stews, meats, and fish.