Okra is one of the great dividing lines in Southern cooking: people either love it or hate it. Nobody knows when this odd little seedpod from an African hibiscus came to America, but it seems to have followed Africans into the New World wherever they landed, and has been part of the Southern table at least since the eighteenth century. Okra lovers and haters have been battling over this odd vegetable ever since.
Sometimes food historians get so caught up talking about the distant past that we forget history includes everything that’s passed, which is why you rarely hear historians talk of pickled okra, the one thing known to convert most okra haters, simply because it came along within my living memory.
Though today they’re one of my mother’s specialties, she didn’t start making them until I was nearly grown. They’ve sure caught on, though, because today there are several store-bought brands available, and they’re such a standard at cocktail parties that they’re almost considered passé by the trend-conscious (a sure sign you’ve become a classic).
Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of odd things done with pickled okra, but possibly the most outrageous (and delicious) was Chef Ben Barker’s Okra Rellenos at Magnolia Grill in Durham, NC. He split and seeded pickled okra, piped them full of house-made pimento cheese, and then battered and fried them.
Oh, my goodness—you just have no idea.
Erica, my eldest niece, never had time for anything like that. Literally weaned on Mama’s okra pickles, she’s been addicted to them since she was a toddler (and she’s now a mother with pickle-addicted toddlers of her own). She’s been eating them straight from the jar since she was first caught in the middle of the kitchen table with a half-empty jar between her little legs and a big smile on her lips.
Mama’s Pickled Okra
Makes 6 pints
2½ pounds young okra, each no more than 2½-3-inches long
6-12 cloves garlic
6 large sprigs of fresh dill, or 6 teaspoons dill seeds
12 whole small hot red pepper pods, preferably cayenne, optional
3 teaspoons whole mustard seeds, optional
About 5¼ cups cider or distilled white vinegar
3¾ cups water
3 tablespoons pure pickling salt or kosher salt
Thoroughly wash 6 pint canning jars and new canning lids and sterilize them in boiling hot water. Let the jars air dry but leave the lids in the hot water. Do not touch the insides of the jars after they are sterilized.
Wash the okra under cold running water, rubbing gently to remove the fuzz. Trim off most of the stem but leave the cap intact. Using clean tongs, pack the okra into the jars, first cap down and then cap up, so that they mesh with one another. Add a pod of garlic, or two if you really like it, a teaspoon of dill seeds, and 2 pepper pods and a half-teaspoon of mustard seeds, if liked, to each jar.
Combine the vinegar, water and salt in a stainless pan and bring it to a boil over high heat. Divide this between the jars, leaving half an inch of head room at the top of each jar. If you have any of brine left over, discard it: don’t over-fill the jars.
Seal with the lids and rings and process the jars completely covered in a boiling water bath for 5 minutes. Remove with tongs and set them, not touching one another, on folded kitchen towels. Let cool completely and store for 6 to 8 weeks to allow the pickles to mature before using them. Either reprocess jars that don’t seal or store them in the refrigerator and use them up within 2 months.
Try these okra favorites!
Down South of Philadelphia Cheese Steak
Cajun Tempura Okra and Scallion Dipping Sauce
The Lady and Son’s Okra and Tomatoes
Pickled Okra Sandwiches
Damon Lee Fowler is a culinary historian and author of six cookbooks, including Classical Southern Cooking, Damon Lee Fowler’s New Southern Baking, and The Savannah Cookbook. His work has also appeared in Food & Wine, Bon Appetit, and Relish. He lives and eats in Savannah, Georgia.
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