Is your garden sprouting veggies faster than you can pick them? Coming home with too many must-have farmers' market finds? Grab your friends and get pickling.
jars of pickles

I've always been a big partier, but at age 40 you won't find me doing keg stands. Instead, my last several gatherings have been in the name of food preservation. Sounds strange I know, but I'm a produce hoarder who preserves every fruit or vegetable I can stuff in a jar. It's a time-consuming hobby that goes a lot faster if you have lots of hands on deck. So to satisfy both my obsession with pickling and my love for entertaining, I throw pickling parties. At the end of it all, every­body goes home with jars of tangy jewels. In other words, pickling parties are better than other parties because they produce more than just hangovers.

But it didn't always occur to me that this was the best way to do my pickling. For the past five years, I've explored quintessential Southern ingredients on my TV show A Chef's Life. To tell each story, I learn from growers, producers and cooks about traditional ways to use an ingredient. Then I take what I've learned and apply it to dishes for my restaurants in Kinston, North Carolina. I've seen that making pork cracklings is tedious. I've cut my finger in the process of learning the best way to dice a rutabaga. I've noticed that growing just about anything requires both patience and faith. But the most important nugget I've harvested is that people used to do a lot more stuff together as a means to get food on the table. Instead of buying a jar of relish at the supermarket, small groups of friends or relatives used to spend a day dicing, brining, pickling and packing once humble, now transformed, cucumbers into jars.

chopping tomatoes

This is where the pickling parties came in. I wanted to emulate this experience and since I don't technically need to can tomatoes or make pickles, I decided to throw parties around it. I invite friends, family and co-workers over. I do the shopping, provide the recipes and set the stage. I ask my guests to bring drinks, snacks, aprons and jars. We start early, peeling, chopping and trimming vegetables over coffee. I throw together a salad for lunch and set out a pickle plate with cheese and charcuterie for a late-­afternoon snack. We chat as we chop. And when all the jars are sealed and the kitchen tidied, each guest heads home with an ­arsenal of bright garnishes for bowls of beans, Bloody Marys and sandwiches. My hope, though, is that my pickling parties represent more than a shared task made easy by many hands. Fingers crossed we remember them for the ideas we exchange, the techniques we learn and friendships we nurture whether we need pickles or not. And of course, we need pickles!

Chef Vivian Howard is a James Beard Award winner for her TV show A Chef's Life. She owns two restaurants in Kinston and one in Wilmington, North Carolina.

Recipes in This Story

0 A brine can be as simple as equal parts vinegar and water, but for exceptional pickles you want to add seasoning. This brine recipe lets you mix and match whole spices, ground spices, heat givers, fresh herbs and aromatics however suits your fancy. Be sure to make enough liquid to cover everything in your jar--and remember that any vinegars you swap in have to be 5% acidity or greater (it's indicated on the label) to ensure a proper pickle. Olive-Cured Okra Pickles

0 You may not think to combine olives and okra, let alone throw olives in your pickle jar. But trust: get your hands on the nicest okra possible and tuck it in a jar with briny olives, summer basil and a mean pickling liquid--you'll see what the fuss is about with this quick preserve. Speaking of pickling liquid, this recipe calls for rice vinegar, which has less than 5% acidity--the minimum for safe canning--so these pickles are for the refrigerator only. Chop and scatter them over roast chicken, toss into salads, spoon onto cheese plates or eat 'em straight from the jar. Corn & Fennel Chow Chow

0 Meet your new favorite topper for summertime barbecue foods and winter braises alike. Generously spoon this sunshine-hued relish over anything that needs a hit of brightness, including but not limited to: burgers, hot dogs, pizza, pulled pork sandwiches, grilled vegetables, salads or even a cheese plate. No green tomatoes? Firm red tomatoes are a fine substitute. Tomato-Pepper Relish

0 The easiest, fastest way to boost a simple dish? Keep a jar of flavor-packed pickle on hand. A perfect combo of sweet and sour, this chunky tomato-pepper relish, aka "pea helper," dresses up a bowl of black-eyed peas, crowder peas, lima beans--any old legume you can think of. Hence the nickname! This makes the perfect hostess gift because it's unique and versatile. And let's face it, who doesn't want their beans to be more exciting? Bloody Mary Garnishes by the Jar

0 The classic Bloody Mary is an easy, go-to brunch cocktail meant to jolt you back into reality with spice and booze after a late night out. "Hair of the dog" is a tried-and-true treatment for those droopy-eyed mornings, but spike your Bloody Mary with a lively jumble of these cider vinegar pickles for a real cure-all that will open those eyes. Green cherry tomatoes are especially fun in this mix because they end up looking like green olives. More Healthy Recipes

Watch: How to Pickle Anything

More Canning How-Tos:

Vivian's Pickling Party

Vivian's pickling party

For Vivian's pickling parties everyone works together around a big wooden table at the modern farmhouse she and her husband, Ben, built in her hometown, Deep Run, North Carolina. Since she's a chef she knows the importance of being prepared, so she provides plenty of cutting boards, knives, dish towels and prep bowls.

Pickling spices in bowls

Produce at peak ripeness makes the best-tasting pickles. Be sure any dried herbs and spices you use to spike your brine are fresh as well. If they've been in your cupboard more than two years, put them in the compost rather than in your pickles.

Vivian's pickling party toast

Vivian Howard (center) toasts a successful afternoon of pickling. Her canning crew (from left to right) includes Ashleigh Martin, Vivian's sister Johna Casey, and mother-daughter duo Madison and Louise Mauck.

pickling okra

(Photos: Helen Norman)