Recently my food savvy British compadre Andrew put together a lovely supper to celebrate his birthday with friends. The menu included a chilled beet salad with feta, a Moroccan tagine, couscous, a crisp carrot salad, and a light lemony tabbouleh which reminded me of a great affection I have harboured over the years for this simple eastern Mediterranean parsley salad.
Tabbouleh has been around for thousands of years. It’s origins are in Lebanon and Syria, but its popularity spread throughout the Middle East, Northern Africa, and onward to the western world. Contrary to western perceptions that tabbouleh is a bulgur salad, it is in fact a parsley salad tossed with a scant addition of plumped bulgur, fresh mint, lemon juice, salt, and olive oil. There are regional additions of spices and chillies, but in its simplest form it is a taste sensation that tantalizes the palate and compliments anything it is served with.
When I was living in LA I often stopped on my way home from work at Zankou Chicken, a Lebanese take out place famous for their rotisserie chicken with lemony garlic sauce and of course their tabbouleh. It is no wonder why Angelenos flock to this place. The food is addictive! You can check out their website (see here).They have expanded with several locations since my time in LA. A must try if you are not already a devoted regular or if visiting LA!
Unfortunately I don’t make tabbouleh often here in Thailand as bulgur can be hard to find, but now I am on a mission to remedy the situation. Fortunately I had a small cache in the kitchen to test my memory and make a tabbouleh to pair with my own rendition of Zankou’s crispy salted rotisserie (in my case dry roasted) chicken with their secret garlic lemon sauce, which I promise to delve into …so stay tuned!
Bulgur, either hard red or or soft white is boiled wheat that is then dried and “cracked” into various sizes; coarse, medium, and fine. Fine or medium is the best choice for tabbouleh. I personally prefer the fine bulgur for a lighter fluffier tabbouleh. As the bulgur has been previously cooked or steamed a fine cracked bulgur only has to be rinsed an drained. Medium cracked bulgur will need a short simmer to plump the grains. Whichever bulgur you choose to use, rinse the bulgur in a mesh strainer under cold running water to remove any dust and set aside to drain. If you are using a medium grain briefly simmer to soften. Squeeze out excess moisture from the bulgur just before tossing it with the parsley, mint, tomatoes, seasonings, lemon juice and olive oil. Simple perfection!
Tabbouleh is traditionally served in iceberg lettuce leaves, but you can also use baby romaine, or my preference for radicchio for a splash of color!
Tabbouleh: serves 4
- 1/3 cup fine bulgur (or medium)
- 2 plump firm vine ripe tomatoes
- 3 tablespoons finely diced shallots (or finely sliced green onions)
- 3 cups packed fresh flat leaf parsley leaves
- ¾ cup packed fresh mint leaves
- 1 tablespoon lemon zest
- 4 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon flaked sea salt
- freshly ground pepper to taste (or a pinch of red chile flakes)
- 1/3 cup best quality extra virgin olive oil
- 1 teaspoon za’atar (see here) or more or baharat (see recipe below)
- icebergr, baby romaine (coss), or radicchio leaves
Rinse and drain the bulgur and set aside. If using medium bulgur simmer, about 5 minutes, to soften.
Rinse the tomatoes well and pat dry. Quarter the tomatoes and remove the white core. Slice the quarters into strips and then finely dice the strips. Place in a non-reactive bowl along with their juices.
Finely dice the shallots (or finely slice the green onions) and add to the tomatoes.
Rinse the parsley and set on a kitchen towel and blot dry. Remove the stems and discard. Best to slice the parsley leaves in batches. Place a hand full of the parsley leaves on a cutting board. Place your hand over the leaves and using your bent finger tips feed the parsley into the blade of a very sharp knife, slicing the leaves as thinly as possible. Transfer the sliced leaves to the bowl with the tomatoes and shallots. Slice the remaining leaves and add to the bowl.
Rinse the mint leaves, place on a kitchen towel and blot dry. Remove the stems and discard. Using the same slicing method, slice the mint leaves as thinly as possible and add to the other ingredients in the bowl. Using your hands toss everything together until completely mixed. The salad should be looking light and fluffy.
Scatter the prepared bulgur over the salad and toss until well combined. At this point the salad can be refrigerated until you are ready to serve.
Serving: Just before serving sprinkle the lemon juice over the salad and scatter the salt and pepper (or chile flakes) over all. While tossing, begin adding the olive oil 1 tablespoon at a time. This will keep the salad light and airy. Once all the olive oil is mixed into the salad, taste and add the za’atar and or baharat, and additional salt if needed. Give the salad a final toss and you are ready to serve.
Arrange the iceberg, baby romaine (coss), or radicchio leaves on a serving plate. Fill the leaves with tabbouleh and serve.
Not to worry, any leftover tabbouleh can be refrigerated for several days, tossing again before serving with nearly the same freshness as the day it was made
Baharat spice mix:
- 1 teaspoon black peppercorns
- 1 teaspoon coriander seeds
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon ground clove
- 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
- 1 teaspoon toasted cumin seeds
- 3/4 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
Combine all the ingredients in a spice grinder or mortar and grind into a powder. Store in an airtight container.