Flash in the Pan

Pink tabouli

| September 05, 2013

The parsley-rich Middle Eastern salad known as tabouli (among other spellings) is a summer dish that transitions well into fall. It's light, satisfying and filled with seasonal ingredients. It won't heat up your kitchen, either, as the bulgur wheat used in tabouli doesn't require cooking. Many cooks simply soak their bulgur wheat in heated water. But even that step isn't necessary, as I recently learned from a farmer friend, as long as your tomatoes are juicy enough.

His trick is to make a slurry from the most bloated tomatoes on hand, in a blender or food processor, and soak the bulgur wheat in it. Without the added water, tabouli made this way has a richer, deeper flavor. It's also nice to make use of that tomato juice, rather than watching it flow off the cutting board and onto the floor.

The peak of harvest season, aka now, is a great time for this recipe, when the tomatoes are sagging under their own weight on windowsills and farmers at the market are giving discounts on specimens that are so unstable you're afraid they won't survive the trip home. Those are the fruits you want to use in tomato juice tabouli.

While these considerations of tomatoes and grains are important, it's worth remembering that tabouli is a parsley salad at heart. Parsley-centric dishes like this are a rarity in the United States, where the vitamin-rich herb is all too often stuck on the side of the plate, next to the orange slice. I've even dined with people who expressed shock at my eating this normally ignored garnish. Tabouli, in its forest green glory, makes up for some of this insult to parsley.

To make tomato juice tabouli, you'll need the following ingredients:

4 cups of chopped parsleypacked cups, not loose

1 cup fine-grained bulgur

1 cup finely chopped onions

2 cups of cucumber chunks, about 1/2 inch per side

2-plus cups of tomato puree

2 cloves of garlic, to taste. Grated, chopped or pressed

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

3 tablespoons lime or lemon juice

1/2 tsp salt

a handful of mint leaves

To make the puree, mix and match whatever tomatoes are available and juicy, from lipstick-red slicers to yellow cherries to mottled, funky heirlooms. With low-acid tomatoes like Brandywines, you may need to add more lime.

ARI LEVAUX
  • Ari LeVaux

Cut the tomatoes into quarters, spilling as little juice as possible. Add a pinch of salt to the blender, then the garlic and tomatoes, the softest pieces first. Blend until you have a slurry with occasional tomato chunks. For every two cups of this pinkish soup, mix a cup of bulgur wheat, in a bowl or Mason jar, along with the lime juice. Let it sit for two to three hours.

Before washing the parsley, untie the bunches and look through them, picking out any yellow or rotten leaves. Wash the parsley bunches by holding the stems and dunking the leaf ends in a big bowl of clean water, with a tablespoon of added vinegar. If the water stays clean, you're done. If the water's dirty, change and repeat until it stays clean after dunking.

As you grip the stems of the parsley bunch in your hand, pick a spot to cut the stems off, at the bottom of the leafy area. Choosing where to cut is a balance between wasting some leaves that will end up with the stems, and having too much stem material in your tabouli.

After cutting off the stems, grab the leafy bunch and begin chopping at the cut end; cut stems more finely than leaves.

Since mint leaves come in different sizes, and you want about a dime's worth of mint in each mouthful, chop and portion your mint accordingly. A little goes a long way, and too much mint can create a weird taste.

Combine the ingredients in a bowl, including salt and olive oil. After mixing, adjust salt and lime if necessary, and mix again. It's ready to eat immediately, but if you let the ingredients get to know each other better over the course of an afternoon, that bonding will pay off.

Quinoa tabouli has gotten a lot of buzz lately—anything with quinoa has—and I had high hopes for tabouli made from sprouted quinoa, having read that sprouted quinoa can be reconstituted by soaking for 30 minutes in warm water. Alas, after 24 hours in tomato slurry, my sprouted quinoa had barely softened. I made another batch in which I soaked cooked quinoa in tomato slurry, and the resulting tabouli was tasty, but different enough that it felt wrong to call it tabouli.

Bulgur wheat means whole grain wheat that has been cut into various sized grains (fine bulgur is better for tabouli). Quinoa isn't a grain, isn't chopped and has a different texture and more flavor than bulgur. All of these qualities make quinoa stand out in the tabouli, drawing attention to itself. Bulgur is a better team player, quietly contributing a unique, soft toothiness to the tabouli.

Or maybe I just think bulgur is better because that's what I'm used to. And that's how it has been for ages. Regardless of which grain or seed you might choose, raw or cooked, soaking it in the juice of supersaturated tomatoes is worth a try. It's an elegant, cool twist on a timeless summer dish.

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