Monday, August 12, 2013

Okra, Fig and Basil Stew

Oh my cat is a naughty little thing.

I was just about ready to take the photos for today's post when that crazy-cat-wants-to-run switch in Simba's brain came on – the one that makes him sprint up and down the hallway not caring what he crashes into at the end of his 5-metre skid along the floorboards. Today's performance had him ricocheting off the half-open door to my little makeshift studio (should've shut it, I know) and sideways Spiderman-style using the door as a spring-board to catapult himself directly onto the table where I had my beautiful okra and fig stew set up, aiming straight for a full glass of water which of course tipped over and soaked EVERYTHING.

I can't help but laugh at this cat. It took an hour to clean everything up, but when Simba has one of his sprint bursts I just find it so hilarious. Tony says he looks like a cartoon character as he suddenly activates his spinning power legs, trying to get some grip on the slippery floorboards but not actually moving; his legs just a set of blurry rotating rings like cartoon scribbles. I'd love to capture it on video one day.

So eventually I reassembled and photographed today's gorgeous dish, Okra, Fig and Basil Stew. Miraculously, the sun came out for a few minutes this afternoon and cast a wonderful glow over my arrangement. Even the basil leaves warmed to the idea and released a generous amount of their heavenly scent as the sunlight triggered some extended photosynthesis action!

Tony and I are five days away from boarding a flight headed for Greece. I can't tell you how much we need this holiday. It's been an intense few months for both of us work wise, so it will be lovely to have some time away from the daily grind. But more severe than our aversion to working 16-hour days is our severe intolerance to cold weather. I have a prolapsed disk in my lower back which tends to flare up during the colder months. I get muscle cramps in the bum and classic sciatic pain all the way down my right leg during these flare-ups. It's not the most comfortable condition to live with, but at least I know that warmer weather provides some relief. This is one of the reasons we are moving to Queensland next year, and definitely a reason to get excited about going to Greece in five days!

To get us there, I've got part two of my three-part-promise that I made last week when I said I'd commit to posting three more recipes before we leave for Greece. A few days ago we started with Avgolemono Soup, and now we are on to Okra, Fig and Basil Stew which can be served as either a side dish or a main meal. It's delicious with rice, pasta, couscous or crusty bread. Today I ate it for lunch without accompaniment and it was exquisitely yum.

Fresh figs are really expensive in Australia at the moment. I'm obviously buying them at the wrong time of year but I wanted to test this recipe before getting to Limnos where we have a gigantic fig tree in the garden. The figs will be almost ready for picking by the time we get there so I intend on making this dish as well as other fig-loaded dishes while staying at the Limnos house. Tony is keen to fire up the wood-oven again and I can already see fig and fetta pizza on that paddle!

Some people are put off by the sometimes slimy quality of okra. I don't mind a bit of okra goo, but I did a bit of research today on ways of reducing the slime factor for those that are not too keen on the "soft centre" of okra's insides.

Slime-reducing methods range from soaking okra in vinegar for an hour or two before use to blasting washed okra with a hair-dryer for 20 minutes, or frying whole okra in hot oil until brown all over.

Contact with liquid is one of the things that activates the "mucilage" as it's called (awful, AWFUL word – too close to "mucus" for my liking) so the key is to dry the okra out as much as you can before you use them. Being a liquid, I'm not sure how the vinegar works but all the Greeks swear by that method. Except me. I don't like the taste of vinegar so I really didn't want to go there. I ended up combining the drying and frying methods. It reduced the slime a little, but not enough to declare these methods foolproof.

Rather than risk killing my hairdryer that's already on its last legs just before I take her overseas with me, I decided to dry my okra in the oven for 20 minutes set to 80 degrees celsius. I then cut them into 2cm chunks and fried them up on high heat for about 10 minutes.

Yeah, my hair dryer is a she.

Anyway, this dish is a stew after all, and the thickening properties of the okra in this case were actually a good thing. It reduced the cooking time by half and resulted in a rich and thick tomatoey sauce.

I found this recipe in a cute little book I recently ordered online called "Greek Vegetarian Cookery" by Jack Santa Maria. There are no pictures which I actually struggle with when trying a new recipe – I usually need the visual before I can commit to making something from words alone! – but Okra and Figs together sounded brilliant to me so I took a chance.

And I'm glad I did! I changed a few things like using fresh figs instead of dried (I HATE dried figs. But LOVE fresh figs. Go "fig"ure… Sorry, had to throw that one in), and as previously mentioned, I pre-dried and fried the okra.

I loved this dish. The acidity of the tomato was beautifully mellowed by the sweetness of the figs which was like heaven on the tongue. But it was the basil that added a real spark to this dish. Basil and fig. Who would have thought?

Tell me, do you have any hot tips on how to reduce the slime factor in okra?

Okra, Fig and Basil Stew

Adapted from the recipe for "Okra with Figs" from Greek Vegetarian Cookery by Jack Santa Maria

Serves 4 as a main or 6 as a side


  • Olive oil for frying
  • 1 large onion, sliced
  • 400g okra, stems trimmed
  • 2 zucchinis, sliced
  • 5 fresh figs, cut into quarters
  • 1 can peeled, chopped tomatoes
  • Handful of basil, torn
  • 2 cups of water or vegetable stock
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 extra fig for garnishing


  1. Lay washed and trimmed okra on baking tray and place in oven at 80 degrees celsius for 20 minutes to dry.
  2. Heat olive oil in large heavy-based pot and fry onions and zucchinis on medium heat for 2–3 minutes. Add figs and fry for another minute or so.
  3. Add tomatoes and stir well. Season with salt and pepper. Bring to the boil then reduce heat and allow to simmer uncovered for 30 minutes.
  4. While stew is simmering, heat some more olive oil in a frying pan over medium to high heat. Remove okra from oven – they should be cool enough to handle – cut into 2cm chunks and quickly add to frying pan.
  5. Fry okra, tossing continuously, for around 5 or 6 minutes, until brown all over.
  6. Add okra to stew in the final ten minutes of cooking time.
  7. Remove stew from heat and stir in basil.
  8. Serve stew with rice, pasta, couscous or bread. Garnish with slices of fresh fig and a sprig of basil.


  1. I love fresh figs, my grandparents had a tree and we'd always peel figs. Then when I first visited my in laws, they showed me their fig tree and they ate the figs unpeeled and I was all ewww (but I didn't say it out loud). I never knew you could eat figs unpeeled but I still can't bring myself to eat an unpeeled fig whole. If it's cut up in a soup like yours I'd eat it :)

    Okra is one food that has never appealed to me in any way but this soup is something I'd try. Especially for my mum, she's doing so much more vegan cooking now and I told her today that during Lent next year, I'll be making her a tonne of stuff :)

    1. Yeah I remember peeling figs when I first started eating them, until I noticed some white milky sap oozing out of the pith one time. Now I'd rather leave the skin on, and not know what's underneath! The skin is so soft though, it's like eating apricot skin :)

      Okra seems to do ok with liquid around it, like soup or stew. The slime is definitely much less noticable. I'd love to know if you do give this a try :)

  2. I don't mind the viscosity of okra at all, but I've found that cutting or slicing it, then cooking with fresh or canned tomatoes, makes even okra-haters admit that it's not as bad as they thought it would be. Haven't converted anyone to being an okra-lover yet, but I've had a few people ask me if I was going to make that "okra succotash" again.

    1. Oh, Okra Succotash sounds wonderful!! You're right Diane, with a bit of tomato sauce around them, the slime of okra isn't quite as prominent.

  3. I had a good laugh at your cat! Ours definitely has a run-switch in his brain too.

    Have a wonderful trip! I envy you the weather and the figs. :-)

    1. It's funny, now that I think about it, every cat I've ever owned (and there's been a few!) has had the run-switch! I wonder if it's something I'm doing? Thanks for the well wishes for our trip Cindy :)

  4. I think it's the acidity in the vinegar as well as the tomatoes that reduces the viscosity of the okra. I love it, it's one of the few vegetables I will use frozen. You can buy frozen okra at most Indian grocery shops and it makes a very quick vegetable side for dinner.

    1. Oh, the acidity! That makes sense :) And frozen okra sounds interesting too - I wonder if freezing might also help reduce the slime component?

    2. Used frozen okra (thawed) for this. Just as slimy before frying.

  5. this sounds absolutely perfect to me! i love fresh and dried figs, so i could try this either way, but, BOY, do those fresh figs look absolutely gorgeous in this stew. it's almost too pretty to eat!

    i never see okra in the grocery. i wonder what i could sub for it?

    1. I can't wait to be eating fresh figs in Greece - they look even better than the ones I've used here. In Greece, many fruit and vegetables are so much more intense than they are here. Must be the weather!

      Substitute okra for any green vegetable I say! There's already zucchini in this dish, so maybe add some broccoli or green beans. Yum, might try that next time!

    2. Look in the frozen foods section for okra.

    3. Hi Nauplion, I am in Greece at the moment and here they have the most beautiful fresh okra at the local fruit and vegetable stores. No need to buy frozen :)

  6. Hi Lisa I just found your blog and wanted to say it looks fantastic. I love Greek food (well food generally) and have been vegetarian for ages. I live in Istanbul at the moment and miss weekend lunches with a bottle of Retsina at the greek restaurants in Melbourne. I can't wait to try some of the recipes you've posted. The photos are great and really make me want to cook. Thank you for bringing Greek and vegetarian together :)

    1. Hi there anonymous, so lovely to see another Greek-food-loving vegetarian here! Thanks for stopping by :) You might be missing Melbourne but I'm jealous you're living in Istanbul. The weather will be just starting to warm up over there now, too. I would love to spend some time living in Turkey (or Greece for that matter) and learning more about the culture, the people, and of course the food! I think you should see if you can find some Retsina in Istanbul – I'm sure it will be available somewhere :)


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