In my imagination, if summer had a taste, it would be fresh lemon. In reality, my summer — suffering in the stifling heat of central Texas — often tastes more like the bitter, white pith just below the skin of a sunshine-yellow lemon. But imagination is a beautiful thing, so I state again: If summer had a taste, it would be fresh lemon.
Which is why I recently had a hankering for homemade tabbouleh.
The thing that differentiates tabbouleh from something like Turkish Chopped Salad is the addition of bulgur wheat, or as it was known in my house, “cracked wheat.” I was going to wax poetic about the toastiness of the bulgur, but instead, I’m going to let this quote from my recently acquired copy of Middle Eastern Cookery (part of the Time-Life Foods of the World series) do it for me:
To begin, there was tabbouleh, a salad of chopped tomatoes, green and white onions, radishes, parsley, and mint. Now tabbouleh is a fairly conventional salad until a final unforgettable ingredient is added: nutty-flavored burghul, which is wheat boiled to the point of splitting, parched in the sun, and cracked or ground to various degrees of fineness. In our salad the grains were medium in size, and because they had been soaked beforehand, delightfully chewy in texture.
So, yeah. Bulgur wheat. Nutty, chewy, delicious, but not exactly on my approved food list these days. So that was the first hurdle: find a replacement for the cracked wheat.
Turns out, that wasn’t the only challenge with this recipe. There was the ratio of lemon juice to olive oil to consider, along with the amount of bulgur to include, radishes or no radishes, and to spice or not to spice. I consulted a handful of my favorite resources to see how they handled their recipes:
David Lebovitz has a good-looking tabbouleh recipe in a guest post by Anissa Helou. She introduced me to the idea of Lebanese Seven-Spice Blend, of going easy on the bulgur, of the importance of draining the tomatoes.
Spice: Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean by Ana Sortun — I disregarded this recipe outright because it includes no mint and uses basil instead. I’m sure it’s tasty because her recipes are quite good, but I just cannot. with. basil. in. tabbouleh.
Natural Food Feasts From the Eastern World: China, Japan, India, Indonesia, and the Middle East by Sigrid Shepard — This cookbook is a complete delight, and I acquired my copy illicitly, which makes me love it even more. (That story deserves its own post later this summer.) Anyway, I like the proportions of this recipe — not too much oil in relation to the lemon juice and a good balance between mint and parsley.
The Best International Recipe from Cook’s Illustrated — This monster of a book is great, of course, because everything from Cook’s Illustrated is great. My favorite thing about their recipe was the suggestion to serve the tabbouleh with tiny romaine leaves for scooping. I will definitely do that next time. This time, I ate my tabbouleh out of the Sitti bowl with a giant soup spoon. Like an animal. I’m pretty sure I smacked my lips and wiped them with the back of my hand. I was alone in the kitchen. No one could see me. It was glorious.
Pita The Great by Virginia T. Habeeb — This cookbook is a sentimental favorite, a hold-over from the days when I made homemade pita bread. It’s so friendly and so ’80s — it was published the year I graduated from high school! I bought it during my second year of college — when I had my own apartment for the first time — and I used it to recreate some of my Lebanese favorites in my “own place” in Syracuse, New York.
After all that research, I was hungry for a Lebanese feast, and I still had to deal with the bulgur issue. Remembering that grated cauliflower worked like a charm as a stand in for bulgur in my kibbeh sinayee recipe, I wondered what would happen if I tried cauliflower in the tabbouleh. Then: inspiration! I wonder what would happen if I toasted the cauliflower before adding it to the tabbouleh…
It totally worked!
The toasted cauliflower adds a nutty, chewiness to the salad and bonus! it also adds more vegetables. The proportion of “bulgur” to veggies is low, which is a more traditional way to make tabbouleh. The version sold in delis is usually mostly wheat with a few vegetables as garnish, but true tabbouleh is really parsley salad, so my recipe is green, green, green.
I sampled versions of my tabbouleh with and without the Lebanese Seven-Spice blend recommended by Anissa Helou; I definitely preferred the spiced version, but the difference is subtle. Although the spice blend itself includes bold flavors, the small amount in this recipe provides just a hint of something interesting underneath the grassy parsley and bright lemon. It’s worth the extra step to make the Seven-Spice and add it; trust me! And speaking of lemon: I added some lemon zest to make the salad zing. I also decided against radishes because, to me, they really taste like dirt and muddied the flavors too much.
Oh! I also opted to use curly parsley because that’s what my mom and dad always used in our kitchen when I was a kid. I know snooty chefs prefer flat-leaf and most of the time, I agree with them. But the curly parsley is so much friendlier and lighter. Let’s face it: it’s cute. Go curly!
So, whew! My recipe was finally done. This version, my version, is slightly tart with a nice olive oil slinkiness. To me, this tabbouleh tastes like the best of summer: bright, light, fresh, and refreshing.
Serves 6-8 | Prep 30 min. (So much herb plucking and veggie chopping!)
1 head raw cauliflower
1/2 tablespoon coconut oil, melted
2 seedless cucumbers
4 ripe tomatoes
4 cups curly parsley leaves (about 2 bunches)
1 cup fresh mint leaves
1/3 cup lemon juice (about 3 lemons)
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
zest of 1 lemon
1/2 teaspoon Lebanese seven-spice blend (optional - recipe here)
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1. Preheat the oven to 400 F. Cover a two large baking sheets with parchment paper. Use a food processor to “rice” the cauliflower: Break the cauliflower into florets, removing the stems. Place the florets in the food processor bowl and pulse until the cauliflower looks like rice. This takes about 10 to 15 one-second pulses. You may need to do this in two batches to avoid overcrowding. In a large bowl, toss the cauliflower rice with the melted coconut oil, then divide the cauliflower between the baking sheets. Spread it into a single layer so it can toast in the oven, and bake for 20 minutes or so, checking at 15 to make sure it’s getting golden but not burning. (Mine got pretty dark, and it retained a nice bite, even after being tossed with the dressing.)
2. Cut the cucumber and tomatoes into 1/4-inch dice, place in a colander, sprinkle generously with salt, and let the vegetables “sweat” out their excess moisture while the cauliflower is in the oven.
3. Wash the parsley then either pat dry (with paper towels or a clean dish towel) or spin in a salad spinner. Repeat with the mint. When the herbs are clean and dry, use a sharp knife — not the food processor — to finely chop them. I think it’s nice when you can recognize the leaf for what it is in tabbouleh, so I don’t mince the herbs as fine for this salad as I do for Turkish Chopped Salad. Place the herbs in a large mixing bowl.
4. Trim the scallions and slice them very, very thin so they’re almost shaved. Add to the parsley.
5. When the cauliflower is toasted, remove from the oven and allow to cool. While it’s cooling, drain the cucumbers and tomatoes of the released liquid, then add the vegetables to the parsley. Toss with a rubber scraper to combine.
6. In a small bowl, use a fork to mix the lemon juice, salt, pepper, lemon zest, and Lebanese seven-spice blend. Slowly drizzle in the olive oil while you continue to mix with the fork. Then pour the dressing over the vegetables and toss gently, but with purpose, until all the ingredients are coated. Cover and refrigerate for at least an hour so the flavors can blend.
NOTE: As I admitted above, I ate this aggressively as soon as it was done — but on day two, it tasted even better. Day three, it was still good. After that, it begins to look a little sad, so if you can’t eat a full batch in 2-3 days, cut the recipe in half.
More International Summer Salads
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