A few years ago, on a whim, I bought some okra from a local farmers market. It was too pristine to pass up, unblemished and deeply green. I ended up tossing the whole okra pods in oil and salt and grilling them quickly over high heat. They tasted like a cross between blistered shishito peppers and grilled zucchini. A perfect lazy summertime snack.
Some folks avoid okra because it releases a slimy texture when it’s cut into pieces and cooked slowly. However, if you buy okra pods that are small and crisp, and you cook them whole using high heat, the texture isn’t slimy at all. In fact, grilled okra is so enjoyable that it can easily become a mainstay ingredient in your repertoire.
I’ve been searching for a reason to eat grilled okra not just as a snack but as part of something larger. I recently stumbled upon an ideal pairing when I added it to my pasta salad. Because the okra cooks so quickly on the grill, it maintains some bite and texture. It ends up tasting “crispy-soft,” which is the trendy way of describing a vegetable that has found that perfect balance between raw and overcooked.
Tossed amidst springy coils of fusilli pasta, the grilled okra is aided by a supporting cast of smoked mozzarella, fresh cherry tomatoes, and torn basil leaves. A dressing of garlic oil and lemon juice envelopes everything. This creates a finished dish that tastes bright, acidic, yet also deeply savory. There’s no mayo in this pasta salad, and that’s just fine because it isn’t missed.
The earthiness of the grilled okra pairs perfectly with smoked mozzarella. It’s an ideal flavor combination for any outdoor barbecue. However, this recipe also works well using a stovetop grill pan to cook the okra in case it’s raining or you don’t have access to an outdoor grill.
Grilled Okra Pasta Salad
1/2 cup olive oil
6 garlic cloves, minced
1 pinch red pepper flakes
1 pound fusilli
1 pound okra (the smaller ones if you can find them; they will be more tender)
1 pinch kosher salt
1 pinch freshly ground black pepper
1 pound smoked mozzarella, cut into bite-size pieces
1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved
1 bunch fresh basil, leaves picked and washed, stems discarded
1. Add the olive oil to a large skillet. Add the garlic and red pepper flakes to the room temperature skillet. Place the skillet over medium heat. When the garlic begins to sizzle, lower the heat slightly. You want to gently sizzle the garlic for 5 to 10 minutes until it just begins to brown and caramelize. When the garlic begins to brown, remove the skillet from the heat.
2. While the garlic is cooking, you can boil your fusilli. Make sure your boiling pasta water is salted so that the water tastes like the ocean. Undercook your pasta by 1 minute. Toss the cooked pasta with the garlic oil that you made in Step 1, and add the lemon juice. Stir to combine. Set it aside.
3. Toss the okra in just enough canola oil to lightly coat them, and grill over very high heat, using a grill or a stovetop grillpan. Grill the okra in a single even layer. Cook the okra in batches if you need to. If you're grilling outdoors, consider using a grill basket so the okra doesn't fall through the grates of the grill. The okra should be nicely charred on both sides. Don't overcook the okra, they shouldn't be too soft and mushy. Cook the okra for a minute or two, until they have nice grill marks or char, then flip the okra and cook for another minute or two. As you take the okra off the grill, season it with salt and freshly ground black pepper.
4. Cut off and discard the top stem of each cooked piece of okra. Small pieces of okra can be added directly to the pasta. Large pieces of okra should be cut in half and then added to the pasta. After adding the okra to the pasta, add the smoked mozzarella and cherry tomatoes. Stir gently. Tear the basil leaves into bite-size pieces and add them to the pasta. Stir gently again. You can serve this pasta salad warm, room temp, or you can refrigerate it and serve it cold over the next few days.