Making tabouli

So Monday’s post really got me thinking about how I cook. It is impossible for me to follow a recipe as written. Part of the problem is that my small kitchen doesn’t have room for every single piece of equipment and spice. The other part of the problem is that I would rather use what I have than drive into town for some obscure ingredient that I won’t use all of. I don’t know that this is a bad thing, except when someone reviews a recipe on allrecipes and gives it a bad review because they “followed the recipe exactly, EXCEPT…” THAT drives me crazy. 

Yesterday I made some tabouli for a neighborhood cookout. All the while, I was considering how I would write a recipe for tabouli. What really hampers those thoughts is that tabouli is a really personal thing to make. It comes from the Middle East, so there is a certain flavor profile that you generally follow, but once you get past that, we Americans have changed it so much to suit our needs that I’m not sure anyone from the Middle East would even recognize it. I’ve seen recipes for tabouli that use cherry tomatoes instead of cut ones, recipes that had so much salt I’m sure the taste of the actual salad was gone, and recipes by chefs who clearly didn’t understand the importance of the olive oil. 

So here’s how I make tabouli:

You need a bunch of parsley. And by a bunch, I mean a whole bunch, like you buy at the store. I normally use the flat leaf parsley, but my garden has not fully recovered from the last harvest, and there was NONE at the grocery store(s) I went to today. (Yes I went to multiple stores, because not every supermarket carries the things I want. And, no, I could not believe that two different stores were OUT of parsley in general.) The third store had parsley, but only in the curly variety. The good news is that it smelled fabulous, and I wondered why I was such a snob about the flat stuff. The point of that whole story is that the parsley is the star here. There should be about as much parsley as there is bulgur wheat.

And now we discuss the wheat. You can usually find it in the produce section or sometimes the bulk section at the store. Sometimes it’s called tabouli wheat; sometimes it’s just called cracked bulgur wheat. It’s all the same diff, but sometimes it’s “name” or the store where you find it will mean a variation in price, so it’s worth checking if you plan to make tabouli often. The wheat you don’t want to get is tabouli mix. We’re talking dried parsley (remember how I said it was the star?) and onions, gross.

To get started, put about a pound of the wheat in a bowl and set some water to boil. Add olive oil and lemon juice to the wheat. I use about a quarter cup of each, but it’s just because I don’t want a huge lemon twang, and I don’t want to waste olive oil in the next steps. Speaking of olive oil, now is a time to use all those extra fruity, extra virgin oils you’ve been saving for a special occasion. Add about a teaspoon of salt and a teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper. Add about enough boiling water to cover the wheat, plus about an inch or two of water above it. Give it a stir, cover with plastic wrap and set aside for about an hour.

Many of the tabouli recipes I’ve seen over the years call for a precise measurement of water, and I find that it’s usually too much. The reason I say that it’s too much is that it doesn’t all get absorbed, meaning you have to pour some off, but at that time you’re also pouring off all that awesome lemon juice and olive oil. I generally work with the assumption that you can always add more, but you can’t take any out, and it seems to turn out okay.

During the resting time for the wheat, I chop up the vegetables and put them in a big bowl. First up is the parsley, then the cucumbers, which I peel and seed because of personal preference. In this batch I used one full bunch of parsley and three cucumbers. I’m not sure that cucumbers are always traditional, but the garden is going nuts right now, and I like them. I also sliced and added six green onions. I have seen people use finely chopped red onion, but it’s really a use what you have thing. 

Cucumbers less than 20 minutes off the vine!

Next up are the tomatoes. I used 2 Romas here, but use what you have, or leave them out all together if you don’t like tomatoes.

Tomatoes also fresh off the vine!

Let’s discuss mint. Some recipes call for it, others don’t. It seems like the TV chefs insist on great quantities of mint, but the Lebanese restaurant where I waited tables in college didn’t use it at all. It does make a difference, but it’s not required. When the mint in my garden needs trimming I use it, but if not, I don’t. Again, this goes back to tabouli being a really personal dish.

So now you’ve got your veggies all chopped up in a big bowl, and the wheat has absorbed up all the water, oil and lemon juice.

Fluff the wheat with a spoon, and then gently mix it in to the veggies. Taste it and add a little olive oil and salt and pepper, if needed.

Serve the tabouli as a side dish to all kinds of grilled meats. It’s also especially good with tuna or shrimp as a light meal. Enjoy.