10 September 2014

Get Your Okra On, Y'all!

This isn't going to be a cookbook review, so much as it will be a review of the author and the fun event I attended not long ago at Odyssey Bookshop. It's no secret that I'm Southern, and it's also no secret that until recently, okra was a vegetable that was rather hard to come by up here in the Kingdom of the Yankee. Thankfully that is about to change, and I think we can all be grateful to Virginia Willis, author of the new cookbook and cultural/culinary history, Okra. Her new book is getting all kinds of accolades, she is also a displaced Southerner living in my own town, and Virginia has precisely the right kind of persuasive and upbeat disposition to talk our local farm stand into growing more okra.
All the fixin's for an okra martini, including
locally made vodka and pickled okra garnish
My husband and I were already planning on attending the Okra event, but once we heard that Virginia would be pouring okra martinis and serving up some food for us, we were able to enlist some friends to attend, too.  She also demonstrated how to make pickled okra and the little fried okra cornmeal cakes that were delicious.  Better than hushpuppies or cornbread by far, and nothing's better than food served hot off the skillet!
Virginia is a Cordon Bleu-trained chef who loves to incorporate French techniques into traditional Southern cuisine, but for this book, she did research on the cultural history of okra around the world and modified recipes from West Africa, India, the Caribbean, as well as the American south to include in the book.
Seriously, I cannot tell you how good these were.
I've been eating okra for most of my life now, but it wasn't until Virginia's event that I ever sampled it raw, and I just might be a convert.  I like the crunch of raw vegetables, but I've never cared much for their flavor, but okra is pretty mild, and it has a crispness factor similar to sugar snap peas or sweet bell pepper. If it weren't so expensive to buy up here, I might snack on it regularly during the summer months.

Did I mention that she's adorable?
Lots of people don't like okra because of the slimy (or mucilaginous, if you prefer) output that results when it's cut open, but there are ways to avoid it if you wish.  Like deep frying it, which is obviously the best way to eat okra.  OBVIOUSLY. Some dishes, like a traditional gumbo, depend on that same mucilaginous texture to thicken the stew.  I also learned from Virginia that for every culture around the world that grows okra, there's a recipe that pairs tomato with the okra, for the acidity in the tomato cuts down on the slime output. Food science.  It's nifty.
Well, that went down with tolerable ease
I'm not much of a cook myself, but I will do what I can to coax my DH to prepare some of the recipes in this book.  Especially since Virginia gave us the tip to shop at the Asian market in Hadley to find fresh okra year-round!  So basically I'm saying, eat okra, y'all.  It's yummy, it has a venerable tradition, and if you start now, you'll be ahead of the curve.  Okra is gonna be the new arugula and/or the new squash blossoms of 2016.  I can just feel it.

NB: This book was published as part of the Savor the South series from the University of North Carolina Press and DH and I each purchased our own copy to support the author and the event. 


  1. Okra is a big part of the food culture of the Philippines, most often fried but used in soups and stews also.

  2. Okra came to the Philippines with the Spanish. The hot wet climate is perfect for growing okra. It is often cooked with fish sauce.

    1. Cool. I would have expected okra to already be there, pre-Spaniards. And all of the yes to hot climates being perfect for okra. That's why it's sadly so difficult to grow in New England.

  3. What fun! I love okra in Indian cooking, and I think it's also used in Japan, though I've not tried Japanese versions.

    1. Interesting about Japan. I wouldn't have immediately thought of there as being a big okra consumer.

  4. I'm from the south but have never really been an okra fan - until recently, that is! I blame it on my parents. Apparently my mom does like okra but my dad hates it so we never ate it growing up. I tried some fried at a local restaurant and am a fan!

    It is rather hard to come by in my area, though. I think I might be able to find it at the Asian market and I might actually look into planting some next garden season.


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