Monday, March 26, 2012

Okra Stew (Margat Bamya)مرقة باميا

(Makes 4 servings)

First, an interesting bit of history on okra ‘hibiscus esculentus’, Arabic bamya:

This vegetable was mentioned in ancient Iraq on Assyrian cuneiform tablets dealing with herbal medicines. It was called ‘ubanu,’ literally ‘finger’, which brings to mind the English name for okra, ‘lady’s fingers,’ and Iraqi vernacular for okra banya.

Okra stew (margat bamya)
Today, okra is a very popular vegetable in Iraq. It is exclusively used for making margat bamya (okra stew). No spices are used in preparing it, and yet, it will come out wonderfully delicious. I think what puts off many people, who did not grow up eating it, from dealing with it is the sticky substance that comes out when it is cut open. The traditional Iraqi way to get rid of most of the slime is to cut off both ends of the okra, making sure some of the holes show, and then wash it under running water for a long time. I find this tedious and time consuming. A better way to deal with it is to cut off both ends making sure some of the holes show, wash it briefly, and then boil it briefly for no more than 5 minutes (it should still look vibrantly green). Strain it and use it immediately, or let it cool off, and freeze it for future use. I usually buy a whole box of fresh okra, prepare it this way and keep it in the freezer. Very convenient.

When buying okra from the market, I recommend you look for medium-sized ones about 2 inches long, but since these are hard to find in the markets, you can cut the long ones in half. Another thing, choose the ones which do not sound crunchy when gently squeezed between the fingers, these will more likely be fibrous in texture. Or buy frozen okra, just wash it in a colander and use as directed below. 

4 to 6 chunks of lamb on the bone, such as trimmed lamb shanks, cut in half (2−2½ pounds)
2 tablespoons canola or olive oil
5 to 6 cloves garlic, whole and leave skin on
3 heaping tablespoons tomato paste (one 6-oz can) diluted in 4 cups hot water
1½ teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon pomegranate syrup, or ½ teaspoon sugar and 2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 pound fresh or frozen okra (follow directions given above)
2 to 3 small dried hot peppers, optional

In a medium heavy pot, sauté meat pieces in oil, until browned, about 10 minutes. Add hot water, enough to cover the meat. Bring to a quick boil, skimming as needed, and then let simmer gently, covered, on low heat until meat is tender and moisture has evaporated, about 45 minutes. If meat is cooked and there is still some liquid in the pot, strain it and use it as part of liquid required in the recipe. 

To the meat pot, add garlic cloves and stir for 30 seconds. Stir in the rest of ingredients and bring pot to a quick boil, skimming as needed, then reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer gently, covered, until sauce is rich and somewhat thickened (35 to 40 minutes).

Serve the stew with white plain rice or bulgur along with slices of onion and green pepper. Another popular way of serving okra stew is having it as tashreeb: put bite-size pieces of flat bread in a deep dish and drench it with the stew sauce. Arrange meat pieces and garlic on top.

The fun part is eating the cooked whole garlic cloves: Hold the garlic clove between your thumb and index finger and squeeze out the soft pulp into your mouth, discard the skin. Yummy!

Photo Nawal Nasrallah 
(Recipe adapted from my cookbook Delights from the Garden of Eden: A Cookbook and a History of the Iraqi Cuisine)

Sunday, March 25, 2012

 Spicy Dried-Plum Cake

كيكة العنجاص المجفف

The delightful prune, or dried plum as some marketers would prefer to call it thee days, is sweet and sour and chewy in texture, it is fun to eat, nutritious, and as with all dried fruits, available year round. 

To people in the ancient Near East, the prune was food fit for the gods, in whose lavish meals the prune had its cherished place. Its health benefits did not escape their attention either. Some ancient cuneiform clay tablets dealing with the Assyrian plant drugs do include the prune, and the recommendation was to eat it with butter and honey. Fast forward to the present -- We are hearing some very good prune-news these days, the most exciting of which is that it tops the list of foods rich with antioxidants and that eating ten of them a day, can keep osteoporosis at bay. It cannot get any better of course since unlike most medications prescribed for osteoporosis, prunes have no adverse effects - keeping one ‘regular’ surely should not be counted as one.

Besides eating it off hand as a snack, the prune is quite delicious cooked, in sweet and savory dishes. Here is a recipe for a scrumptious prune cake. And by the way, for the record, the first cakes in history were baked in the ovens of the Sumerians in ancient Iraq more than 5,000 years ago. We know this from some excavated records, such as the proverb in which the husband (?) protests, “In my budget there is no (place for any) one to bake cakes!” Or when they brag about the superiority of their cuisine as they criticize the way the Bedouin of the western desert took their food, they said that if you gave them flour, eggs and honey for a cake they would not know what to do with them. Besides, some cuneiform texts even give the proportions in which the ingredients were to be mixed for fruit cakes made to go to the temple and the palace.

1½ cups (10 ounces) dried prunes
1¼ cups brewed tea, or water with a tea bag

½ cup oil
1½ cups granulated sugar
3 eggs
1½ teaspoons vanilla

2½ cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
½ cup finely shredded unsweetened coconut (optional)  
1 cup walnuts, halved or broken, for the bottom of the pan
 Preheat oven 360°F

Put prunes and tea (or water and tea bag) in a small pot. Bring to a quick boil, then simmer for about 10 minutes, or until prunes soften, but not mushy. Drain the prunes, but reserve the drained liquid. Let them cool off to room temperature. Cut the drained prunes into small pieces, and add enough cold water to liquid to make it measure 2/3 cup. Set aside. 

In a big bowl, put oil, sugar, eggs, and vanilla, and beat for 2 minutes. Sift together flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves, and coconut if use. Stir the flour mix into the egg mix, in two batches alternately with the measured prune liquid. Stir in the prunes. Grease and flour a 10-cup capacity ring pan, or a large loaf pan, and shake off excess flour. Spread the walnuts in the bottom of the pan, and pour the batter on top of the nuts. Bake the cake for 40-50 minutes, or until surface feels firm to the touch. Let it stand for 10 minutes and then invert it on a cooling rack.

When completely cool, dress the cake with this delicious icing:

1 cup packed, brown sugar
½ cup heavy cream
6 tablespoons butter
1½ teaspoons rose water or vanilla
1 cup confectioners’ sugar, sifted 

In a small saucepan, combine sugar, cream, butter, and rose water or vanilla. Bring to a boil, on medium heat, stirring to allow sugar to dissolve. Boil gently for about 4 minutes. Let it cool off to room temperature, and then stir in the confectioners’ sugar until smooth. It should be neither too thick nor runny in consistency. Ice the cake with it immediately and decorate the top with some walnut halves, if you wish. Chill cake for about an hour and serve. 

( (Makes 16 slices)

(Recipe adapted from my cookbook Delights from the Garden of Eden: A Cookbook and a History of the Iraqi Cuisine). See also  a variation on this cake made with dates, and filled with rose-water scented whipped cream. 

Photo Nawal Nasrallah

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Kleicha and Ma’moul Cookies: What’s in a Name?


Photos Nawal Nasrallah 
Follow this link to an article I wrote for Repast (volume xxiv, no. 4, 2008, pp. 4-7):
Read about the story behind these festive Middle Eastern cookies, their cultural and historical ties with the ancient pagan Near Eastern New Year festivities, Norouz, and the Jewish and Christian feasts of Easter and Purim, and Muslim religious feasts.
The article’s title is: "The Iraqi Cookie Kleicha, and the Search for Identity"