I am not a vegetarian because I love animals. I am a vegetarian because I hate plants.
–A. Whitney Brown
It’s a brave cookbook author who will take on okra–a vegetable either loved or detested–but if anyone can do it, veteran Southern cook Virginia Willis can.
Okra is slimy, it is covered with fine spines and can give you a rash when you harvest it. It made my mother throw-up in a New York subway car when she was pregnant, and accordingly, I never ate until I married my Greek-American husband who loves bamyies. And now, so do I.
If you don’t have your own, built-in okra mentor, use Willis. She loves it. Willis starts with an ode to okra, admitting it is a “contentious vegetable,” but going on to sing its praises–the many ways it can be cooked from stewed with bacon and tomatoes to irresistibly dipped in cornmeal and fried. She talks about the origin of the word okra, its botanical features including heirlooms and hybrids, how to grow it, and how to cook it.
Then she dives in to recipes. There are Southern recipes, which began with fried–Southern-style, shoestring, double-dipped, and in the oven. Pickled, in gumbos, styled as sushi or ratatouille, homey in a tomato stew or fancy in gougeres, Willis is determined to find the okra you will love.
International recipes come from West Africa, Egypt, Morocco, Iran, Turkey, Greece, India, Asia, South America, and the Caribbean. Clearly the rest of the world knows something about okra that we have to learn.
In Pickles & Preserves, Andrea Weigl takes on another cooking fear–canning. I long for a rainbow of preserves in my cabinet, but I’m full of excuses. It requires special equipment, messes up the kitchen, not enough time or people to eat what I preserve, or I might kill everyone with botulism!
Weigl calmly takes on all these fears, explaining the science simply, describing any special ingredients, and how to fix goofs like runny jam; she’s very down-to-earth. You can re-process that runny jam or just call it a sauce and pour it over ice cream! She also talks about canning’s history, from Nicholas Appert who “fixed the seasons” and powered Napolean’s army to the 1858 American invention of the Mason jar. Canning became a particularly Southern tradition–fueled by a long growing season and impoverished post-Civil War larders. During the Depression and WWII, home canning in America peaked with 3,600 community canning centers in the U.S. When we retreated to the suburbs and our freezers, canning traditions retreated as well.
Canning was once a neighborly event so invite friends over to share the work–chopping and peeling–and to share the bounty. And who wouldn’t want jars of Damson Plum Preserves and Peach Butter, Dilly Beans and Pickled Ginger, Spiced Grapes and Brandied Peaches. Weigl’s recipes for preserves, pickles, and relishes and chutneys are worthwhile summer projects, each one more mouth-watering than the last.
It’s time to fearlessly enter the kitchen–pickled okra, here I come!