Strangely, over the seven years I lived in Morocco and collected recipes, I never once tasted this tagine. Then, on a recent trip back, it was served to me twice. Turns out it's a little-known rural dish recently rediscovered, which has become hugely popular because it's so good.

The combination of okra, quince, and garlic may seem odd; but once you taste it, I think you'll be enraptured. Rabia and Fatna, the two cooks from Tangiers 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 braised to absorb other flavors may be a revelation. Here the okra pods develop a mushroom-like texture while still retaining their shape, and the cone-shaped hard stem ends pick up the flavors of the sauce. To prepare okra so that you can eat the entire vegetable, thinly peel the cones without piercing. This takes some time, but I think it's well worth the trouble.

Some Moroccan cooks rub 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 the flavor and firm up the texture before adding the okra to a couscous or tagine.

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Ingredients

  • pounds fresh baby okra, trimmed top and tail
  • tablespoons salt
  • Pinch of cayenne
  • Pinch of freshly ground black pepper
  • 3 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 pounds fresh quince (9 small or 3 large)
  • 2 pounds lean bone-in lamb shoulder, trimmed and cut into 6 even chunks
  • 1 medium red onion, grated
  • Pinch of saffron threads
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • ½ teaspoon hot Hungarian paprika or cayenne
  • 2 sprigs of cilantro
  • 2 sprigs of parsley
  • 18 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
  • ¼ cup tomato puree
  • cups chopped red onion
  • 1 jalapeño pepper, seeded and minced
  • teaspoons ground cumin
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon

Method

  1. Trim the okra cones: Carefully pare the cone tops of the okra pods and trim the tips if they are black, but do not cut into the pods. On a tray, toss the okra with 1 tablespoon of the salt mixed with the cayenne and black pepper and 2 teaspoons of the olive oil. Spread out and let stand for 1 hour in a warm place.
  2. Meanwhile, wash, halve, and core but do not peel the quince. (If using large quince, cut each into 6 sections.) As you work, place the pieces in cold water to keep them from blackening. Let soak for at least 1 hour.
  3. Put the lamb in a 4-quart casserole. Add the grated onion, remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil, saffron, ginger, paprika, cilantro, parsley, garlic, and teaspoons salt. 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, for 45 minutes, adding water if necessary and turning the meat occasionally in the sauce.
  4. Add the chopped onion, jalapeño pepper, and cumin and continue simmering over gentle heat for another 45 minutes.
  5. Meanwhile, drain the quince. Place it in a large 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. Raise the heat to medium-high 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 for 1½ hours, quickly rinse the okra under running water, drain and thoroughly dry with paper towels. Fry in hot oil until browned on all sides; drain on paper towels. 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 large, shallow serving dish. Pour the onion sauce on top, decorate with the quinces, and serve at once with wedges of dense bread.
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