Trust me, this one is a show stopper. You could even serve it to your boss. Or mother-in-law. It's that good.
Bamia (Arabic for okra) is an extremely popular vegetable in Shami cooking. In the summer it is used fresh; in the winter, dried.
Okra stew is served two ways in this region: as a thick stew over rice or caramalized in the oven and eaten with bread. When served with rice it is not unlike an Arabic gumbo and I can completely understand why true okra lovers are fond of it. When served hot from the oven with fresh pita bread it is a showstopper.
Another benefit of the caramalized version is that it is make ahead. You can make the stew (to be aunthentic, call it the maraqa) earlier in the day or even the day before and put it in the oven just before serving. If you are serving it as part of a guest meal I suggest individual dishes that you can stick under the broiler, if you are enjoying this as a family it can be broiled in a large shallow pan. Nowadays, I use the broiler pan that came with my oven; when my family was smaller I used to use a shallow 9"x 9" glass cake pan.
What you will need:
-Meat (Beef, Lamb, or Sheep). I personally use a little less than a pound per 1.5 pounds of okra. If your taste runs less or more, that's fine; but, if you use less you will need to use a richer stock or substitute stock for some of the water.
-Onions. I use one large one for my 1.5 pounds of okra
-Garlic- divided in two (I use about 2-3 full teaspoons of chopped garlic. This is about 2-3 cloves)
-Okra (as small as possible, left whole, with just the top trimmed off)
-4 or 5 very ripe tomatoes, peeled or not, chopped
-salt and black pepper to taste
- maggi, knorr, boullion powder, or fresh or canned stock (beef stock is best, but I've used Knorr chicken powder in a pinch)
-Baharat Makhloot (7 spice blend available in all middle eastern stores) and/or a scant handful of Allspice berries (or ground allspice)--I prefer just a scant teaspoon of Baharat and a small handfull of Allspice berries as they let the complex flavors of the dish shine through. If you don't like picking whole spices out of your food, use a cheesecloth bundle or 2 heaping teaspoons of ground Baharat.
-fresh or whole dried hot pepper or ground dried hot pepper (or both fresh and dried) (I use a single one of the light green, elongated, mildly hot variety or about 1/2 teaspoon of ground red hot pepper)
- one or two bay leaves
-carob syrup (in Middle Eastern stores as Dibs Kharoub) or tamarind "dibis"/syrup (Also Middle Eastern Stores as "Tamar Hindi"). You can also use frozen tamarind puree (available in the frozen Latin section) and honey (I've even used honey alone in a pinch). When I'm in the US I use tamarind as it's more readily available at regular supermarkets.
-coriander (cilantro) leaves, chopped finely (about a small bunch or half a large bunch, or to taste)
It is nice to fry/ saute the okra before adding them, but I often skip this when I am pressed for time. In order to save a pan, I do this before anything else, then remove and reserve them.
Saute the onions in plenty of olive oil (you want to at least comfortably coat the bottom of your pot, if any of your ingredients start to stick, add more!). When the onions have started to soften, add any fresh peppers. Saute until peppers are soft then add half of the garlic and saute for a bit, until the aroma rises. Add the meat, tossing to brown all sides. When the meat is browned, add any ground spices that your using and the chopped tomatoes. Add pepper and dried red pepper to taste. Add some salt, but not all, you want to take into account the saltiness of your stock as well as "save" some to saute with the garlic and coriander at the end. Some salt is necessary to draw out the flavors of the meat and vegetables at this point, however.
When the tomatoes have cooked down into a sauce and the meat is tender, add the okra and just a little stock (or water and powder) as nessasary (just enough so the okra doesn't burn). You want to braise the okra more than boil it at this point. As the okra cooks, keep adding a bit more stock each time you check. The more it cooks, the more you'll want to add more and more stock so that you make a sauce. If you run out of stock, don't worry about it--just use water or your powdered stock. Add whole spices and bay leaves, adjust seasoning to your tastes. When the seasoning is good add a generous tablespoon of tamarind syrup or frozen puree (i use about a fifth of the frozen packet and 2 teaspoons of honey). You can add more honey/ syrup if you like. It should not taste noticeably sweet, but rather the honey or dibs will contribute to a depth of flavor.
When the stew is done, saute the reserved garlic in some salted olive oil until the aroma rises, but it is not quite golden yet. Add the cilantro and saute for a second, remove from the heat, and pour into the stew.
You can do this all as far ahead of time as you like. I do it early (even the evening before if I have a busy day ahead of me) and clean the kitchen.
When you are ready to serve, pour it into a pan that a) you can put under the broiler and b) you can eat from. Broil until the stew is bubbly and starting to caramalize and serve in the same pan with pita bread (or moroccan bread or ciabatta any other bread that you can use to scoop out stew--much like the way you scoop dip with a chip). I'll serve my kids from a plate, but trust me this one is nicer (and prettier) right out of the dish you broiled it in.