In American cuisine, okra is usually associated with Southern cooking. It’s used in gumbo, and often served pan-fried in thin rings. In India, where it’s known as bhindi or lady’s finger and the pods are much longer than the varieties commonly sold in the United States, okra serves as the base for many vegetarian dishes.
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But for me, okra — or bamia — was always a simple lunchtime dish, prepared in the classic Middle Eastern way: lightly fried and then into the pot where a hearty tomato sauce is already simmering. These okra dishes, either with or without meat, are popular throughout the Mediterranean and across the Middle East. My personal favorite is still my grandmother’s Iraqi-style okra with kibbeh (dumplings stuffed with beef or lamb filling.) But for an easier summertime okra adventure, try these two recipes of okra and tomatoes. The dried mint and cardamom make this dish anything but ordinary.
One more note: Many cooks fear okra’s somewhat slimy texture and prefer to stay away from it altogether. American recipes sometimes call for soaking the pods in vinegar to solve the problem. But cooking it the Mediterranean way will take care of it in an easier way — just be careful when cutting off the stem, and the mixture of tomatoes and lemon will help keep the okra in perfect texture.
Okra and lamb with tomato
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 yellow onion, chopped
1½ lb. lamb shoulder, cut into 2-inch cubes
Ground black pepper
One 28 oz. can peeled tomatoes
2 teaspoons dried mint
¼ teaspoon ground cardamom (hel)
1½ lb. fresh okra
1. In a medium pot over medium heat, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil. Add onion and sauté until golden, about five minutes.
2. Generously sprinkle lamb with salt and pepper, add to pot and cook until lamb is no longer pink, about eight minutes.
3. Chop the tomatoes and add to pot.
4. If needed, add just enough water to cover the lamb. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low, cover and cook for two hours, until lamb is very tender.
5. Add the mint, the cardamom and salt to taste, leaving pot to simmer while you prepare the okra.
6. Trim the stem ends of the okra, making sure not to cut into the pod. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a nonstick pan over medium-high heat and saute half of the okra for about five minutes, until lightly browned. Transfer immediately to the pot with the lamb. Add another tablespoon oil into the same pan, saute the rest of the okra and add to pot. Gently mix okra into sauce, cover and cook for 30 minutes. Adjust seasoning to taste. Serve over rice.
Okra in tomato sauce
For a vegetarian version of the dish, follow the above recipe, with these changes: Omit the lamb and saute the onion in 2 tablespoons of oil rather than 1 tablespoon. Omit steps 2 and 4 (adding the lamb and simmering it for two hours).