Greek Stewed Okra and Tomato
I’m going to be perfectly honest. I’m being lazy here, and preemptively sparing myself some pain in the title of this stewed okra. This dish is about as Greek as it is Persian, North African, or even Creole for that matter. Through every culture born into a climate where okra and tomatoes grow side by proud, shrubby side, you will find an iteration of this dish. However, if I have learned just one thing throughout my years here at the Choosy Beggars, it is that there is a striking likelihood of every post getting a comment such as, “Thass GREEK you dummy gurl!!” Oddly, we have yet to get a comment saying, “Ahem, I would just like to draw your attention to the fact that this recipe happens to smack of Senegalese cuisine…”.
Despite the fact that okra likely originated somewhere within the continent of Africa, and there are currently more people living in Senegal than Greece, one would think based on probability alone that at some point I will have to sigh and apologize to an angry African for cribbing their style. However, in the mean time, the people of Senegal are keeping quiet, the venerable people of Greece are keeping me on my toes, and I just don’t have any fight left in me today. “Greek stewed okra and tomato”, it is, and if you make some dolmas and pita on the side to go with the theme, feel free to invite me over for dinner. Because, well, yum.
As a basic braised vegetable dish, this is an easy one-pot vegan wonder that has a fabulous simplicity. The key to a recipe like this, with so few ingredients asked to impart so much flavor, is to use the best that you can find. Buy fresh, fuzzy, vibrantly green okra pods. Use high quality tinned tomatoes, or fresh meaty tomatoes when they’re in season. Equally important, use a good, fruity and full bodied olive oil which is what mellows the sauce and gives it a necessary richness that saves this dish from being a dullard.
However, the fun part comes next. After you get hooked on the full flavored simplicity of a basic stewed okra, you can easily start making it your own. The next time you make it, add a sprinkle of snipped fresh dill to really give the dish a bit of Greek flair! Or my personal favorite, a dusting of warm cinnamon and allspice will quickly turn this toward the Lebanese Yakhnit Bamia, and a handful of chickpeas tossed into the mix will make it a meal. What about paprika, thyme and a bit of andouille sausage to bring a bright Cajun smile to the table? I’m telling you, dress it up or dress it down, this is the basic recipe that can do it all.
Not all of you are okra fans, and I can understand that. The texture of the seeds can be a bit…how do you say…mucilaginous? The same feat of nature which thickens your gumbo can equally quickly repulse the unsuspecting child who was told she was getting “special beans”. However, left completely intact and braised just until tender, I assure you that there is nothing icky, slimy or suspicious about the texture of the pods. Better still, the seeds of a young, fresh pod will pop in your mouth like little vegan caviar and taste a bit like spring green peas. That, my friends, is why freshness matters.
Greek Stewed Okra and Tomato
serves 4 as a light meal over rice, 6 as part of a meze or side dish
- 2 lb fresh okra pods *
- 1 lemon
- 1/3 cup olive oil
- 1 medium yellow onion
- 1 can (22 oz) whole or diced tomatoes **
- 1/2 tsp sugar
- 1/8 – 1/4 tsp red chili flakes, according to preference
- salt, to taste
- 2 tbsp minced fresh parsley, optional
* Choose okra pods that are fresh, bright green and with relatively unblemished skin. If the pods are wrinkly, dull, grey/brown or pierced, leave them at the grocer. In terms of size, I find that the smaller okra pods are more tender and less stringy, but it is really a matter of preference.
** I like the rustic look of whole tomatoes that have been hand crushed, but otherwise diced work perfectly well. Depending on the quality of your tinned tomatoes and how much flavor they have, you may want to add a tablespoon or so of tomato paste to the mix after the onions are softened, let this cook for a minute or two and then add the rest of the tomatoes. When I use a good San Marzano tomato I usually don’t bother, but when it comes to the dented store special, like the can you see below….well, sometimes we all need a little bit of help.
Trim just the stem top off the okra, being careful not to cut into the pods or expose the seeds.
Sprinkle the okra with salt (approximately 1/2 tsp) and squeeze the juice of an entire lemon over the pods. Toss the okra to coat each one lightly in lemon juice. Set this aside for 20-30 minutes as you prepare the tomato sauce.
In a fairly large heavy bottomed pot (or Dutch oven), heat the oil over medium-low heat. Peel and finely dice the onion. Sweat the onion in the oil until it is golden, which takes approximately 6-8 minutes.
Add the tomatoes to the softened onions. If you’re using whole tomatoes, squeesh them (that being the technical term, of course) between your fingers before adding them to the pot. For diced tomatoes, just manhandle them by squashing the cubes a bit with the back of a wooden spoon when they hit the heat. Sprinkle in the sugar and red chili flakes. Give things a stir, and then cover the pot and let the mixture simmer over medium-low heat for 15-20 minutes.
Toss the okra in the tomato mixture along with any accumulated liquid or lemon juice. Re-cover the pot and continue to simmer for another 15-20 minutes, or until the okra is tender and braised. You can tell when the okra is cooked because the color of each pod will have washed out from a bright, fresh green to a dull, khaki green. Acidic tomatoes don’t add much to the aesthetic of green vegetables, but they certainly make it up in flavor. Try not to overcook the okra or the pods will get limp and stringy rather than tender.
Check the seasoning and adjust salt as needed. If you like, stir in some fresh parsley immediately before serving.
The okra can be served over rice or egg noodles, but I am a fan of simplicity. Some crusty bread to soak up all the juices, a hunk of cheese on the side (feta, of course, because when you’re calling it “Greek”…) and we’re away to the races.
The flavor potential of this simple, quick dish is as bright and full as the great big world we live in, so why not take some time and travel through a world of taste from the comfort of a pot of pods? But please, start with Greece. It’s just easier that way.