You're either an okra person or you're not. Mark Wootton is an okra guy. As a kid in Highland Park, Wootton grew okra in the back yard of the family home on Shenandoah Street. "And I had an okra stand instead of a lemonade stand," he says. "Sold it on Sunday afternoons to the church crowd--there was a big church around the corner. Sold tomatoes, too. Two dollars a bag and most people gave me a five and told me to keep the change. I cleaned up."
The 22-year-old is still growing great big okra plants, now blooming in the kitchen garden behind Garden Café (5310 Junius St.), the East Dallas restaurant Wootton's dad owns. Young Wootton has just started managing the place and cooking there, after a recent stint as a banquet and line cook at Hotel Palomar's Central 214. Before that he was a dishwasher at Hotel Lumen.
Get him talking about okra and Mark Wootton lights up. It's a member of the hibiscus and cotton families, he'll tell you. Then he'll pop out back, pick a handful of pods just ripening on the 7-foot-tall plants, rinse them off and present them on a white plate, raw, next to a dish of seasoning salt. Raw okra? We were skeptical. Sliced, dredged in cornmeal and fried, yes. Boiled with onions and tomatoes, oh yeah. Even pickled, they're fantastic. But raw?
OK, okra doubters, raw is it. Raw is the new fried. Crunchy and cool, dipped in the red salt, okra's flavor deepens just a touch, like a cucumber in a three-way with a kiwi and an eggplant.
Okra, which grows on leafy stalks that bloom in bright red or yellow flowers, is an African vegetable thought to have been brought to this country 300 years ago by slaves. The name comes from the West African word nkruma. Peak season for okra is right now, between the hottest days of summer and the first cold snap of October.
At Garden Café, they're serving it just about any way you want it. But try it raw. If you weren't an okra person before, you might change your mind.