Diane Kochilas Glorious Greek Cooking

Diane Kochilas Glorious Greek Cooking
Greek cooking is for health and pleasure.

Healthy Greek Recipes for Everyday by Diane Kochilas

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Okra: Love it, Or Hate It?

Greeks love it and we cook it up in really tasty ways.

When it comes to okra, most people either love it or hate it. Most people also associate okra with the cooking of the American South and with African cuisine. Greece is one of the few European countries where okra is held in high esteem, at least among those who love it.
Right now, there is plenty of it growing in my garden on Ikaria, that Blue-Zone island in the northern Aegean where people live long thanks in great part to their simple, healthy diet—dishes based on seasonal vegetables with plenty of olive oil.
There are dozens of regional recipes calling okra. The simplest is a pan-Hellenic okra stew, with summer tomatoes, garlic, onions, and olive oil. In Greek that’s called bamies yiahni.  The best regional Greek okra dishes are found in Macedonia, specifically in Naoussa, one of Greece’s premier wine-making regions. There, okra is stewed but married with verjuice, the puckish juice of unripe grapes, which happens to be in season right around the time okra is, before the grapes ripen and sweeten on the vines.
But okra really shines in the cooking of Crete. There, okra is roasted with whole or filleted fish, usually some sort of bass, and it’s braised with the island’s sour, pebbly xinohondro, a granular wheat-based product that is made by coooking cracked wheat and yogurt or buttermilk, drying it out in the sun at the end of August, then breaking it up into hard, bite-sized pieces. Okra is also married with meat, especially lamb and goat, and  with chicken in slow-braised dishes that call for lots of excellent Greek olive oil.
I am sharing with you two of my favorite okra recipes.
Caveat: Most people who dislike okra dislike it because of its slimy texture. Greeks remedy this with a dose of vinegar. Use a sharp paring knife and trim the ring around the top of the okra, just under its stubby stem. Rinse and drain, then place the okra in a basin and sprinkle generously with red wine vinegar. Let stand for at least 30 minutes, rinse, drain and cook according to specific recipes.
Note: If you’re buying fresh okra, look for small pieces; large okra is woody.

Naoussa Style Okra with Verjuice

From my book: The Northern Greek Wine-Roads Cookbook
Verjuice—the tart but fruity juice of unripe grapes—was a substitute for lemons when the fruit was out of season in the wine-growing regions of northern Greece, and especially in Naoussa, where this lovely, old, unusual recipe is from. You may, of course, substitute lemon juice or even a little northern Greek vinegar, to achieve the desired acidity, although both are a little harsher on the palate than agourida, as verjuice is called in Greek.

6 to 8 servings

1 ½ kilos (3 lbs.) small, fresh okra
1 cup red wine vinegar
½ cup extra-virgin northern Greek olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
½ kilo (1 lb.) firm ripe tomatoes, grated
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
¼-1/3 cup verjuice
½ cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves

1. Trim the okra by cutting away the tough rim at the top. Wash and drain. Place the okra in a large bowl and toss with the vinegar. This helps firm up its slippery texture. Set aside for 1 hour, then drain.
2. In a large skillet heat one-third cup of the olive oil over medium heat and cook the onion, stirring until wilted. Add the okra and grated tomatoes. Season with salt and pepper. Add enough water just to come up level with the okra. Cover and simmer over low heat about 1 hour, until the okra is very soft. About 10 minutes before removing from the heat, add the verjuice and parsley, and season with pepper and additional salt if necessary. Just before serving pour on remaining olive oil.

Cretan-Style Fish Baked with Okra

4 servings

1 ½ pounds fresh small okra
1 ¼ cups red wine vinegar
One 2 ½ - 3-pound sea bream, sea bass, or snapper, cleaned, gutted, and scaled
Juice of 1 lemon
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 medium onions, quartered and thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
8-10 Santorini plum tomatoes, to taste, peeled, seeded, and coarsely chopped (canned are fine)
½ cup dry white wine
1 bunch fresh dill, snipped

1. Trim the okra: Remove the tough upper rims and a bit of the stems. Rinse, drain, and marinate in the vinegar in a large bowl for 30 min.
2. Season the fish inside and out with the lemon juice, salt, and pepper. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1 hour.
3. In a large pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat and cook the onions, stirring, until wilted, 7-8 min. Add the garlic, then the okra, stirring gently to combine. Pour in the tomatoes and wine, cover the pot, and simmer over medium-low heat until the okra is tender but al dente, 35-40 min. About 5 min. before removing from the heat, add the dill.
4. Spread half the okra evenly on the bottom of a baking pan large enough to hold the okra and fish. Place the fish over it and spread the remaining okra around and over the fish. Bake, covered, until the fish is flaky, about 25 min. Serve hot.