I love cooking with vegetarians—they have an eye for vegetables that I can only dream of having, and they come alive in the kitchen during spring and summer. Shortly after moving to Birmingham, I went to a farmers market with a new vegetarian friend; the narrow aisles in the open sun were bustling with an energy that only meant one thing: new produce. My friend can spot the “good stuff” a solid 50 feet away, and he shows no remorse in snagging the last of whatever looks best. By the time I made it through the crowd, his arms were full of fresh ears of corn, a couple bags of green beans and okra, and a few stray zucchini sticking out in every direction. To my look of confusion, he responded with a grin: “Succotash.”
WATCH: How to Make Classic Succotash
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Since then, my respect for a flavorful bowl of steaming succotash has only grown. In the South, many of our most beloved recipes are vegetarian (fried green tomatoes, slow-cooked green beans, mac and cheese, etc.), but succotash is a humble dish that elevates an abundance of summer produce and has made its way to Southern tables for more than 300 years. A gift from Native Americans to early settlers laboring to survive in the New World, succotash is truly American. Centuries of our country’s cooks have added this and that to their own iterations, every region claiming succotash as its own.
Traditionally made with lima beans, onion, corn, okra, and fresh herbs, succotash is a delicious cooked mixture of vegetables, peas, and whatever else is on hand. It can serve as a side or as the main component of a meal, being both flavorful and packed with filling vegetables. Because the dish is so versatile, you can skip the ingredients you don’t like (my vegetarian friend substitutes mushrooms for meat), and it can accomodate those veggies in your fridge that probably need to be cooked—like, yesterday. In addition to being immensely practical and easy on your budget, it can also be an elegant way to draw attention to a precious crop of field peas or heirloom corn. Whether you need to throw together a filling dinner for a surprise vegetarian guest or you want to prepare a nutritious and impressive meal for some close friends, look no further than this celebrated dish simmering the best of our harvest with the best of our traditions.