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Moroccan Lamb, Quince and Baby Okra Tagine

    Strangely, over the seven years I lived in and collected recipes in Morocco, I never once tasted this tagine; then, on a recent trip, it was served to me twice! Turns out it's an obscure village dish recently rediscovered, which, because it's so good, has gained great popularity.

     You might think the combination of okra, quince and garlic odd, but once you taste it I think you'll be enraptured. Rabia and Fatna, the two Tangerine cooks who taught me this recipe, believe the secret to bringing the ingredients into harmony is to use a lot of garlic.  

     To those who think of okra simply as a thickener, eating whole okra, that have been braised to absorb other flavors, may be a revelation. Here the okra pods develop a  mushroom-like texture while the cones pick up the flavors of the sauce while still retaining shape. To prepare okra so that you can eat both pods and cones, you need to remove not only the thin rings between the pods and cones but also thinly peel the cones without piercing. This takes some time but I think it's well worth the trouble.

     Some Moroccan cooks will rub their okra with salt, hot pepper, black pepper and a little oil, then let them rest for a few hours before frying whole in olive oil. They do this to enhance flavor and firm up texture before adding the okra to a couscous or tagine.

Serves 6
1 1/4 pounds fresh baby okra, trimmed top and tail
1 tablespoon salt mixed with 1 pinch hot pepper and 1 pinch black pepper
  Extra virgin olive oil
2 pounds quince (9 small or 3 large)
2 pounds lean lamb shoulder, cut into 6 even chunks
1 medium red onion, grated (1 cup)
  Pinch of saffron threads
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon Turkish red pepper flakes or hot Hungarian paprika or cayenne
2 sprigs each: fresh coriander and parsley, chopped
18 cloves garlic, peeled and coarsely chopped
1/4 cup tomato puree
2 1/4 cups minced red onion
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and minced
1 1/2 easpoons ground cumin
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon



1. Trim the okra cones as directed below. In a wide bowl toss okra with seasoned salt and 2 teaspoons olive oil and let stand for l hour in a warm place.

2. Meanwhile, wash, halve, and core but do not peel the fresh quince. (If using large quince, cut each into 6 sections.) As you work, place pieces in cold water to keep them from blackening. Let soak for at least l hour.

3.  Trim and discard the excess fat from the chunks of lamb. Mix the grated onion, 3 tablespoons olive oil, saffron, ginger, paprika, herbs, garlic and 1 1/2 teaspoons salt with the lamb in a 4-quart casserole. Toss together over medium heat to release the aromas of the spices and lightly brown the onions, about 15 minutes. Add 2 cups water and the tomato puree and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer, covered, 3/4 hour adding water if necessary and turning the meat occasionally in the sauce.

4. After 3/4 hour, add the minced onion, jalepeno pepper and cumin and continue simmering over gentle heat another 3/4 hour.

5. Drain the quince; place in a 12-inch skillet, add 4 cups lightly salted water, cover and cook over medium heat for about 15 minutes, or until almost tender.  Carefully pour off all but a few tablespoons poaching liquid, add the butter, sugar and cinnamon then raise the heat and cook the quince, flesh side down, until tender and glazed brown, 20 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, turn each piece over and set aside until step 7.

6. When the lamb has cooked 1-1/2 hours, quickly rinse okra under running water, drain and thoroughly dry with kitchen toweling. Fry in hot oil until browned on all sides; drain on paper toweling. Add the  okra to the meat, cover tightly and cook until the meat is very tender and the sauce has become quite thick, 20 minutes, shaking the pan from time to time.

7. To serve, reheat the quince with a sprinkle of water and cook until the skin side is glazed, 5 minutes. Arrange the meat and okra on a 14-inch round, shallow  serving dish, pour the onion sauce on top, decorate with the quinces, and serve at once with wedges of dense bread.


Notes on Cleaning Okra

      I adore okra, I've been collecting ways of ridding it of the slimy texture most people don't like.  Since okra is fairly fragile and breaks easily during cooking, Mediterranean cooks have devised all sorts of methods of handling and preparing it.  One thing Mediterranean cooks agree on is the use of a very sharp small knife to peel away the thin ring between cone and pod as well as the cone and cone tip without piercing the pod itself. When you do this, none of the interior gluey substance gets released. A second tip: whenever you wash okra, dry it immediately.

   In the above recipe, peel the okra,  toss with vinegar (3 tablespoons per 1/2 pound), let stand for at least half an hour, then rinse and towel dry thoroughly before using.

     In the great gastronomic city of Aleppo in Northern Syria, I watched my hostess prepare a dish of stewed okra and meat. She wasn't working with the small-as-a-thumbnail size okra, which only require a small trimming of their caps, but with larger okra similar to the sort we have here in the U.S. I was surprised when she told me she had sliced her okra into 1/2-inch lengths the day before, then set the pieces out to dry on a towel. Overnight the cut sides had developed a thin seal, which allowed her to stew the vegetable without any seepage from their interiors.

     In other parts of the Levant I learned other approaches to the problem including washing the okra, drying thoroughly then leaving the vegetables in a warm place for an hour before trimming. I also met cooks who did the reverse - - trimmed the okra then washed and dried them. Still other cooks stiffened them in a bath of vinegar and water  or dipped the trimmed cones in coarse salt before placing them in the sun to dry out for an hour before cooking.

     In Northern Morocco, I watched cooks use a needle and thread to sting okra together into a necklace. This way, whenever the cook wants to stir her sauce, she simply lifts out the necklace, sets it carefully aside, then returns it to the pot after stirring, thus relieving herself of the need to stir slowly for fear the okra will break up.

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