Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Parlez-vous okra?

Folks in the South have long considered okra a classic comfort food, but serious culinary research suggests it might have additional benefits.

In a recent Facebook posting, Atlanta-based cookbook writer Virigina Willis asked famed food historian Jessica B Harris about the capped pods and their infamously sticky yield. The long, seemingly rapturous reply was written entirely in French, but most anyone could detect its alluring tone.

"Her research suggests that, well, it increased stamina for both men and women," Willis said with an earthy chuckle. "It's an equal opportunity vegetable, which is not very common. The insinuation is that is helps the sex drive."

C' est fantastique. For that special date dinner, forget about the oysters. Fix some okra.

Virginia Willis
Willis will have plenty of advice on ways to enjoy fuzzy abelmoschus esculentus when she finishes Okra, a future volume in the Savor the South series produced by UNC Press. The new imprint launched last month with Buttermilk by Raleigh food writer Debbie Moose and Pecans by Charlotte Observer Food Editor Kathleen Purvis.

Okra's potential as an aphrodisiac probably has little to do with its increasingly popularity, even in the north, where those unaware of its charms tend to dismiss is as slimey. "I heard someone call okra the 'new asparagus,' but honestly, I like okra better," Willis said. "When it's super fresh, I even like it raw, cut into slivers for a salad."

Atlanta-based Willis, who summers in New England, said it was much easier to find okra at farmer's market this year than in the past. "We grew our own to be sure, but there was tons of it at the markets," she said. "But you can tell that the farmer's don't seem to know quite white to do with it. They let it get way too large."

Large pods lack the tenderness of smaller ones, which Willis likes best grilled or broiled. While most plants are no long producing as abundantly as they did in summer, okra should remain available at area farmer's markets until the first frost.

Okra Cornmeal Cakes from Basic to Brilliant Y'All
That gives Willis more time to test recipes for the book, which will include about 50 variations on the theme. Though she's previously featured several okra recipes popular cookbooks - see Okra Cornmeal Cakes from Basic to Brilliant, Y'All: Refined Southern Recipes and Ways to Dress Them Up for Company  - Willis has become fascinated by the ways it figures into so many different enthnic cuisines.

"It appears clear that anywhere there is okra, there have been Africans," she said. "My research indicates it was first grown in West Africa, but the Department of Agriculture for India says it come from there."

Not surprisingly, Southern cooks also have embraced okra as a native plant. It's as essential to New Orleans chef John Besh's slow-simmered gumbo as it is to the must-have fried side at Mama Dip's in Chapel Hill.

While Okra is not scheduled for release until Spring 2014, Willis is excited about being included in the Savor the South collection.

"UNC Press really is doing great work. I’m thrilled to be part of it," she said in advance of launching the new Salud! Cooking School at Whole Foods-Charlotte with a tantalizing fall menu. "I’m a bit of a history geek so connecting food history and recipes is right up my alley."

For information about upcoming events, or additional recipes, visit www.virginiawillis.com.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting ... Didn't know okra was an equal opportunity veggie :-)