Stop trying to get it to have coffee with that guy from the CSA who works for his stepfather’s law firm. The bee doesn’t want to be a paralegal, Becca. Sorry, but the bee has actual dreams. -Kelly Stout (“Don’t Swat at the Bee,” from The New Yorker)

 

It may sound silly now, but when I first started my job as a paralegal/legal researcher in San Francisco, I thought there was something highly symbolic about the office’s location. In those days, rather than take the scenic route from the Embarcadero Station, I would exit at Montgomery, turn right and go straight, fighting the crowds until I reached the point where I was slowly working my way uphill. Past the big glass building that used to house the Italian Cultural Institute and before you reach red brick Cotogna, there’s a little gallery called Japonesque. I never went in, but, in a way, I didn’t feel that I had to. What seemed important to me was that this gallery housed the art and aesthetic (le style japonais) that I had written about in my dissertation. As I saw it, it was either a great coincidence or an obvious sign of inevitability (I know that this may be a very literary way of looking at life, but, given my training, can you blame me?). Climbing past this gallery to what was then my new job made me feel like I was somehow eclipsing the academic period of my life–or going, as they say, onwards and upwards!

In the early days, it felt like I had moved onto bigger and better things. I was learning a lot–some good, some bad; the law, i.e. human language twisted and shaped into the often ambiguously phrased rules by which we live, really is a mixed bag of paper pushing and serious research–and even using the skills that I had developed and honed as a graduate student. However, I knew, and relatively early, that it was not, despite my ability to diligently perform rote tasks well, ultimately the job for me. Yet here I am, more than a year later, still working the same job. Of course, my situation has changed; there is no longer a walk to work, an awful commute or a tickling sense of fate when I walk by that gallery. I now instead enjoy the privilege of working from home, of more or less making my own schedule, of controlling the “office” mood. It’s a little strange and, as I’m in a new place with only a few local friends, it can also be fairly isolating. On most days, it’s just me and the beagle, work buddies and faithful companions.

 

 

The whole situation calls to mind the question that I once thought belonged to the domain of children and teenagers eager to rush through their childhoods and become adults, those stable, yet magical people who appeared to have it all figured out: what do I want to be when I grow up? To a certain extent, this question has taken on even more urgency since the move. Now that I am actually here, it’s as if a clean slate is waiting to filled with the actions of the Delawarean me. That said, I’m not sure that, despite what my new license says, I’ll ever really be a proper Delawarean. Elektra and I have made friends with two brothers and their fellow bike-riding buddies (Elektra, naturally, is the main draw, as well as the ice breaker) and, while most of the children seem to have taken a shine to me, one of them has pegged me as an outsider:
Michael: Do you have a husband?
Me: No, but I have a fiance, though.
Michael: What’s that?
Derrick (the older brother): It’s the person she’s going to marry, silly.
Michael: Do you have children?
Me: Not yet. But if you count Elektra…
[Long pause while Michael considers me]
Michael: You know what, you talk funny. It’s like you talk out of your nose. Do you have something wrong with your nose?
Me: Maybe. Listen.  [Sniffling]
Michael: [With a serious expression and narrowed eyes] You should really get that fixed.

While I am still an outsider in more ways than one here (I do, most noticeably, lack the Delaware drawl), I am finding a routine for myself. On Sundays, there is a little farmers’ market that is both pet friendly (a pleasant first!) and full of surprises: pumpkin whoopie pies, apples of all kinds (Jonathan, Pink Lady,  McIntosh, Roman) and, despite the lateness of the season, a fair amount of baby eggplants, Brandywine (or pink) tomatoes and okra–lots and lots of okra, both red and green. The wonderful thing about having more time on my hands is that I can just go to the market, buy what inspires me and then come home and figure out what I’m going to do with all of my bounty. This, more or less, has always been the dream, but less often the reality. And, given the current constraints of my social life and the amorphous quality of my workdays, I’ve been doing a lot of cooking. A lot. Call it my therapy, call it my passion, though these seem to be weak words to describe something that, to me,  represents a welcome breeze, a kind of salvation.

 

 

And these days, I’m not just cooking food; I’m cooking Greek food. I came back from our visit inspired by all of the flavors I recently found myself reacquainted with: hints of lemon, wintry notes of cinnamon, the Greek love of all things anise, pools of oil that feel flavorful and not at all excessive. Greek cuisine is one that I feel is misrepresented in the West, particularly in mainstream America, which seems to think that Greek food consists only of spinach and feta phyllo pie, egg lemon soup, gyros (a word that most of us can’t even properly pronounce. It’s YI-ros, not GY-ros or HE-ros. YI-ros) and baklava. While all of these dishes are certainly beloved by most Greeks and foreigners, there is so much more to Greek cuisine. In Greece, you can find pies stuffed with vegetables other than spinach, syrup-soaked desserts made from semolina and stews that are not really stews–trust me, you eat them with a fork–but vegetables or legumes braised to tenderness in a glossy tomato and onion sauce.
I was recently inspired to make my own Greek stew after a trip to the farmers’ market. We were talking to the woman who was running a stall overflowing with okra and we asked her how she liked to prepare it, how she worked around its slimy texture (remember that, even if there’s slime, it is very good for you; okra is packed with fiber and other nutrients). She said that the best way to get around this was stew, namely gumbo (okra’s African name is [ki]ngombo, which is how one of the staple stews of the American south is said to have gotten its name); in response, the Greek mentioned his love of fried okra (this cooking method will also help to reduce the slime factor), as well as his favorite okra, chicken and tomato stew. I liked the sound of that, so we bought some okra from her and, when we got home, I immediately consulted my Greek cooking bible, Vefa’s Kitchen. It’s a compendium of any Greek dish you could ever want, from loukoumades (doughnuts) to octopus with lentils and greens, and, as I suspected, it included the okra (mpamia, pronounced BAHM-ia) recipe the Greek had been referring to.  The next day I got to work, tweaking here and there, but ending up with a fragrant and rich stew that, though he initially maintained that I had overdone it with the tomatoes, compelled the Greek to say, “Geia sta xeria sou! [Health to your hands!] If that wasn’t ringing endorsement enough (and a reason to trust my own instincts), the fact that he said it while mopping up the last of the sauce on his plate with a thick slice of bread certainly did.

Chicken Stew with Okra (Kotopoulo me mpamies)

Adapted from Vefa’s Kitchen
Yields 6 plentiful servings

While Vefa’s recipe represents the way this stew is probably made in many Greek kitchens, I wanted a sauce that was a little more nuanced and flavorful (like in this recipe for Greek-style leeks).  To achieve this, I decided to add a cinnamon stick and a teaspoon of a Greek spice blend for tomato recipes that the Greek’s aunt had recently given me. These Sparoza spice blends are amazingly complex; this one in particular consists of all spice, cardamom, chili, cloves, nutmeg, orange zest, pink pepper and tarragon and this is not even an exhaustive list! Given the lack of easy access to these spice blends in the US, I would suggest that you simply add the cinnamon stick to your sauce, as well as dash of nutmeg, ground pink peppercorns and maybe a dash of all spice or chili.
 
Another quick note: Vefa’s recipe calls for 1 lb. 2 oz (500) grams fresh tomatoes, peeled and pureed, or 14 ounces (400) grams canned tomatoes, pureed. To me, this seemed like too little sauce for one whole chicken and over one pound of okra, so I added one whole 28 oz. (798 grams) tomatoes instead. This is what the Greek was objecting to when he said I had added too many tomatoes. As he pointed out, with Greek stews, the tomato sauce is not the main ingredient; it is, rather, just a base. But even though we disagreed on the amount of tomatoes that belonged in the recipe, it turned out well and the sauce really does reduce significantly. Making this again, I would still add those extra 14 ounces of tomatoes.
 
In terms of serving, the Greek way is to eat this with bread, but I showed my Italian colors by eating it with farro. Vefa suggests mashed or fried potatoes or rice. Anything goes, really–you just want something that will help you to eat every last drop of sauce.
As a final note, short and small okra work best in the recipe.

1 chicken (roughly 3 1/2-4 lbs), cut into 8 serving pieces
salt and pepper
5 tablespoons olive oil
2 small onions, chopped
one 28-ounce can whole tomatoes, roughly crushed and torn into pieces (I do this by hand)
1 cinnamon stick + additional seasoning (1 tsp) of dried oregano, marjoram or a blend
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
1 lb. 2 oz. (500 g) okra
1-2 teaspoons salt, in a small serving bowl
red wine vinegar, for sprinkling
4 thin slices of lemon, rind removed
1 tomato, thinly sliced
1 tablespoons olive oil
salt and pepper, to taste

Rinse the pieces of chicken and pat them dry. Sprinkle with salt and pepper on both sides. Set aside momentarily.

In a large pan or Dutch oven, heat the oil. Add the chicken and cook over medium heat, turning each piece after about 5 minutes. Once the chicken has been lightly browned all over, remove it from the pan with a slotted spoon and set on a clean plate.

Turn the heat to low and add the onion, cooking until supple. At this point, return the chicken to the pan, then add the tomatoes, cinnamon and spices, the red wine vinegar and the sugar. Cover and simmer for about 45 minutes, or until the chicken is almost cooked and the sauce has thickened.

While the chicken is cooking, cut the stems off the okra, then dip them into the small bowl of salt, place in a colander and sprinkle with red wine vinegar. After 30 minutes, rinse them under cold running water and then drain well.

Add the okra and lemon slices to the pan and and shake to distribute them (gentle prodding and tucking with a serving spoon might be in order here). Then, put the tomato slices on top and season with salt and pepper to taste. Before putting the lid back on the pan, drizzle the tomatoes with an additional tablespoon of olive oil.

Simmer for an additional 15-20 minutes, or until the okra is tender, but firm. Depending on the size of your okra (ours were rather long and, in some cases, plump), it might take an additional 5 minutes, but be sure not to overcook since you want the okra to maintain some of its crunch.

Serve immediately, with bread, grains or potatoes, and seasoned with pepper.

9 thoughts on “A Kind of Salvation

  1. Oh, okra, balm to my southern heart! This sounds utterly divine, and I am all kinds of jealous of your apple bounty. That is one area that I can't say California has ever excelled at, especially down south. But! I am incensed that the local boy has insulted you! And this set off a long search on my part to learn more about the Delaware drawl (I will post a site below that I have spent entirely too much time on, but it is crazy interesting and has, at the bottom, links to Youtube clips of people all over the country displaying their local accent). I don't know if I've ever heard anything like the Delaware accent (though much of what I was able to find was from southern Delaware). There is something about that long O sound that is reminiscent of something I used to call “the Presbyterian O” in Memphis. Intriguing!

  2. Hello, friend! I am glad to have found a fellow okra lover in you (I should have known, of course, given your Southern roots); how do Southerners contend with the slime factor? Do they do the same as the Greeks, dipping them first in salt and then sprinkling them with vinegar?
    As for the little boy who insulted me, I appreciate your anger on my behalf! 🙂 While I think he was being serious, I tend to think that that poor little Michael was just having a bad day (I have since learned that his brother and their biking buddies usually leave him in the dust, as well as call him Mr. Germs. It is possible that my neutral accent and I were simply easy targets). Regardless of his motivation, that is one interesting website you sent along (Kostas loves this kind of stuff and immediately became absorbed in it). It's true that the Delaware drawl is something special (however strangely so); sometimes it is really pronounced and, at others, it is buried, but since I've been here, I've heard some of the most interesting renditions of the English language I've perhaps heard anywhere, from the despicable handyman's to the lady's at the car dealership…

  3. I can't believe I missed this post — I have been looking for a recipe like this for ages! I absolutely love Greek-style okra and tomatoes, and adding chicken makes it a wonderful one-pot meal. What are your thoughts on frozen okra?

  4. Thanks, Steph! This is a ridiculously late reply, for which I apologize! I'm glad you like the new layout (it seems fun and modern; plus, it makes everything so much more accessible, which I like) and that you tried the recipe and liked it. The Greeks really know their way around a good braise. One day you will dine chez nous and we will ply you with all things Greek, tomato-y and doused with olive oil. 🙂

  5. Ann, hello! I'm glad you discovered this recipe since it is not only something you had been seeking (I guess this is how the universe delivers things sometimes), but also a truly fine celebration of okra. 🙂 This same stew (chicken, tomatoes and olive oil can be easily adapted; instead of okra, you could use mushrooms, chickpeas or even a bigger bean like lima).
    As for frozen okra, we always have it on hand (the Greek is a fan) and I like using it in Southern-style stews (or dirty rice), but I don't know how well it would work in a recipe like this one. I feel that the texture of frozen okra differs pretty dramatically from fresh (it's just not as crunchy and you want this to be crunchy). Then again, I'm willing to be surprised.

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