Tabouli: Parsley and Cracked Wheat Salad

Marhaba!  Kayfeh Haluk?!  This week Mike and I ate a lot of Lebanese food.  On the plus side, the list of activities that we enjoy doing together includes sleeping, blogging, and eating a lot of Lebanese food and on a relatively frequent basis.  You see, I’m half Lebanese so these are all foods that I grew up with and have an exceptionally soft spot for.  As for Mike, he realized that there was more to Lebanese cuisine than Falafel and (fabulously delicious) Hummus , because years ago he dated  another half-Lebanese girl and was encouraged to consume massive amounts of traditional food by her hospitable family.   

Lebanese fare has many advantages in my humble opinion.

1.  For the most part, the ingredients are inexpensive and widely available.  The posts we’ll be doing over the next few days are not about Middle Eastern Haute Cuisine – this is easily affordable peasant food….and I lurve peasant food!

2.  Lebanese is a fairly healthful cuisine choice.  Most of the dishes contain only a relatively small amount of olive oil, and saturated fats are few and far between.  You’ll see sauces thickened with yogurt, not cream.  Stews with simple flavourful ingredients are fabulously tasty even with a broth that is water based.  This is heart healthy food, my friends.

3.  Because meat is expensive and many families could not afford to cook carnivorously as often as they would have liked, there is an incredible number of delicious vegetarian and vegan recipes to enjoy as well. 

That said, I think it is only fitting to start with a dish that exemplifies everything that I love about Lebanese cooking:  Tabouli, the ubiquitous Middle Eastern salad.  Tabouli (also spelled tabouleh) is a fresh tasting and lemony salad which uses parsley and bulghur as the base.  Bulghur is made from parbroiled wheat and the flavour is subtle and slightly nutty.  It can usually be found at the grocery store near the other rice and grains, at a bulk food store, or in a Middle Eastern grocer.  The main variation between different types of bulghur is in terms of the size of the grain, or how much it has been ground.  Medium or coarse ground/grain bulghur would be appropriate for certain Lenten stuffings or a rustic grain salad, but for tabouli salad only the fine grain is preferred.

Do not confuse bulghur with couscous, and nor can they be used interchangeably despite having a similar appearance.  I mean it!  You just considered it, didn’t you?  Well STOP, and don’t do it…I mean…JUST DON’T.

Finally, tabouli (being peasant food) has many regional and even household variations.  Israeli tabouli tends to be less finely chopped and uses much more bulghur that is sometimes of a larger grain size.  Turkish tabouli can be chopped slightly rougher as well, and occasionally has other elements added in such as cucumber.  This recipe is for a very traditional Lebanese tabouli where parsley is really the star of the show, and it’s quite fair to think of it as a finely minced parsley salad.  You may also think that it’s strange to see a small bit of cinnamon in the ingredient list, but do not be put off!  You won’t notice a baking/cinnamony (technical term) taste but it will give the salad a wonderful depth of flavour.

Tabouli:  Parsley and Cracked Wheat Salad

  • 1 very large (or 2-3 small) bunches of parsley
  • 1 large handful (about 1 cup) of fresh mint *
  • 3 ripe tomatoes
  • 1/4 large white onion
  • 3 green onions
  • 1/2 cup finely ground bulghur
  • 3/4 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 lemons
  • lots of salt to taste

* When fresh mint is not seasonal you can substitute by using 2 tbsp of dried mint.  However, there is no substitute for fresh parsley in this salad!

Begin by pulling the parsley leaves off of the stems.  If you have children, this is the time to let them help you in the kitchen and indeed I spent many, many hours preparing the parsley for my Dad’s tabouli when I was young.  Kids have those wee little hands that are perfect for jobs like this, plus it will keep them busy for at least 15 minutes which is never a bad thing.

Do the same for the mint, which never quite made it into that first picture.  Give the mint and parsley a very good rinse in cold water to remove any dirt or debris, and spin them absolutely dry.

Measure your bulghur into a small bowl and cover it with cold water.  Let this sit for five minutes.  If you buy bulghur and it has package instructions telling you to steam or boil it, ignore them.  This is  a bunch of malarkey, and although there is a time and a place for steaming bulghur this is not it.  Also, at the risk of sounding like a harpy, the time that the bulghur soaks is important.  If you let it soak too long it will get soggy and then your tabouli will be too wet.  If you don’t soak it long enough, well, it will be somewhat ‘toothsome’ when you eat it.  Five (5) minutes is the perfect length of time. 

Drain the bulghur through a fine mesh sieve, pressing down firmly to remove as much water as possible.  Squeeze those babies dry!

In the best tabouli everything is very finely chopped.  This is particularly relevant for the onion and the parsley.  Very finely mince the scallions and white onion, and add these to the bulghur in a medium large mixing bowl.  Season this mixture with salt and pepper now, as the salt will soften and sweeten the onions as you finish chopping up the other ingredients.  The final seasoning can be adjusted at the end.

Seed the tomatoes and finely chop them.  These can join the other ingredients in the bowl.

If you have carpal tunnel syndrome, do not attempt to make tabouli.  We’re about to embark on The Chopping of the Parsley, and this is where patience, fortitude and strong wrists come in particularly handy.  The parsley must be chopped very finely, and a good rule of thumb is to look at your parsley when it is finely chopped, and then chop it some more.  Get out the largest chopping board that you have and the sharpest chef’s knife.  Spread the mint and parsley out on the chopping block, and go for it!

A few minutes into the parsley chopping, I usually try to channel my Dad.  How does this look?

Internal Dad voice says, “That’s fine.  But if you’re putting that in tabouli, you might as well be spitting on Tata’s grave.”

Keep chopping.

Okay, this is finely chopped.  Anyone can see that. 

Internal Dad voice:  “Much better.  This is fine for tabouli.  If you don’t care about your guests or you don’t know how to cook.”

Alright, now I’m starting to work up a sweat, my hand hurts from chopping, and I’m getting discouraged.

Internal Dad voice:  “I suppose that’s fine.”

Perfect, let’s move on!

The (incredibly finely chopped for interminable lengths of time) parsley and mint  join the other ingredients in the bowl.  Sprinkle on the cinnamon and give it a good stir.  Pour in 1/4 cup of extra virgin olive oil and squeeze in the juice of both lemons. 

Give it a good stir to make sure that everything is incorporated and well dressed.  Check the seasonings and add more salt if necessary. 

To serve the tabouli, scoop the salad into a somewhat shallow bowl that has been lined with crispy lettuce leaves. 

 

If your guests like, they can use these as scoops.  The lettuce provides a pleasantly sweet contrast to the tang of the salad.

Sah’tang!  Enjoy, and to your health!

Side note:  Mike and I were away this weekend, and just this morning I heard the tragic and shocking news about the bombing of the Marriott in Islamabad.  My work had sent me to Pakistan earlier this year, and that is where I spent almost the entire month of June.  We held meetings and luncheons at the Marriott on a regular basis.  My thoughts right now are with the families of the victims and to my many friends and colleagues in Islamabad and the vicinity.

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  • Suzanne

    Je vous remercie de vos instructions! J’aime vos photos.

  • Tom

    Again, this must be your family’s version of Tabboulieh. The regional variations within Lebanon are so wide that this could be one of them. Only the people in the South use Cinnamon. The people in the mountain villages add cucumber.

    • http://www.choosy-beggars.com Tina

      Tom – Aren’t the regional variations of tabouli wonderful? I do like tabouli with cucumber in it, and also with radish. My Dad has even added avocado before (not traditional, but delicious!) and from time to time I’ll add a half can of chickpeas and make it a meal. Rustic peasant dishes are a delight for exactly that reason, where you can take a traditional recipe (and yes, my family’s version uses cinnamon and I can’t imagine tabouli without it) and add your own unique, delicious stamp.

  • Barbara Brown

    I fell in love with “real” tabouli as prepared by a Palestinian friend who grew up in Israel and Lebanon. I found a sort of a traditional recipe, which is what I’ve been using, but I’m going to try yours.
    I very much appreciate your channelling your father and grandmother in the preparation. I remember sitting with my mother, trying to put onto paper some of the recipes I grew up eating. Her deep sighs as she pointed out that I had seen her make these dishes hundreds of times and utter horror when I explained that I had not been paying attention. Thank you so much for taking the time to pass this along.
    Of course, the stuff that is in my fridge will be passed off as a variant of Turkish, since it’s rough cut with cukes (and some chick peas as well).

    • http://www.choosy-beggars.com Tina

      Barbara – thank you for your comment! Too funny that you can relate to trying to preserve family recipes and…all the frustration that comes along with it!! Even if my father does ‘remember’ to give me a full ingredient list, his food sometimes still tastes different/better than mine because of a particular technique he used in preparation which never made it back to me!!

      I’ve been eating my father’s tabouli roughly once a week for my entire life, and I can tell you with confidence that for such a staunch traditionalist, as with most home cooks, he often switches up the ingredients. Cucumber is a frequent joiner, the onions may change, if he runs out of fine bulghur he will often use coarse, and dried mint is almost as common as fresh (although the Lebanese really do have a penchant for dried mint, so that’s no big surprise). I LOVE chickpeas in tabouli, particularly because then I can eat tabouli for a full meal without any guilt, so I fully support the contents of your fridge!!!

  • joe

    Nice tabouli!

    PS – re “tragic and shocking” the bombing in Pakistan.

    “tragic”… yes
    “shocking”… no, it’s the nature of the beast.

  • rose

    This was a great recipe and I appreciate its authenticity, but the cracked bulgher was ‘toothsome’ that it hurt to eat it. I soaked mine for 7 minutes too. Kind of bummed to have wasted some good produce….

    • http://www.choosy-beggars.com Tina

      Rose – sorry to hear that your bulghar was tough! I was talking to my father (aka, my Middle Eastern food expert!) about bulghar a few weeks ago, and he had a lot to say about the difference between spring and winter bulghar. Spring wheat tends to be more tender and is used for pastries, baking, etc. Winter wheat is chewier, stronger, and is used for more robust products with a higher gluten content, such as bread. Bulghar that is made from spring wheat is preferable, with a soft tender texture and nutty flavor. The grains should be small and pale golden or a very light tawny brown. Winter wheat is darker, close to a light/medium brown. Whether you are buying winter or spring bulghar is rarely indicated on the package and your best way is to tell by color, texture of the dry grain, and past experience with that particular brand. It is possible that you ended up with winter wheat bulghar instead of the more popular spring.

      The other element is size. To cold soak bulghar for tabouli, you really need to have the finest grind. Coarser bulghar is great for pilaf, soup and stew, and the size -when dry- may not look to different to the naked eye (although you’ll see it if you have a package of fine and a package of coarser bulghar side by side), but there is a significant size difference when the bulghar is cooked. For a slightly coarser grain, I cover the bulgar with twice as much boiling water and let it soak for at least 30 minutes, or more if I’m using it in an application that doesn’t have a wet dressing or sauce that will soak in.

      The other thought I had (well, in recollection of my father’s complaints over the years about “…unethical companies and their misleading packaging!”) is that you might have bought cracked wheat. Bulghar refers to whole wheat kernels that have been cleaned parbroiled, dried and ground. A small amount of the bran is removed during this process. Cracked wheat, on the other hand, is a whole wheat kernel which is cracked and then dried. The big difference is that bulghar has been pre-cooked and cracked wheat has not, which means that it needs to be cooked and will take a significantly longer time to prepare. Cracked wheat is cheaper to produce and has a shorter shelf life, and some suppliers sell finely ground cracked wheat instead of bulghar. Unethical and misrepresenting, but it happens. Oh, and you might also see the Egyptian grain “freek”, which is like cracked wheat but a lighter greenish-brown color. It also requires a longer cooking time. This is a great summary about the differences between bulghar and cracked wheat, if you’re interested: http://epicureantable.com/articles/agrainbulgur.htm

      Again, sorry to hear that your bulghar didn’t work out for you and it led to a waste of fresh produce, but I would definitely recommend that you try again! If you think you have cracked wheat, boil it until it is tender. If you might have bought a coarser bulghar or one from winter wheat, cover it with boiling water and let it sit for 30 minutes before draining and squeezing out as much liquid as possible. Or, you could try a different brand of very fine light colored bulghar and soak briefly with cold water.
      Best of luck, and thanks again for your comment!

      • Agash1994

        Something you grandma did not tell you is……yes soak the grain for 5 minutes, regardless of size…but…the key is you let the salad sit overnight in the fridge. Flavour and consistency will be a their best. Cheer

  • deborah

    my tabouli came out too dry. any suggestions how to fix it?

    • http://www.choosy-beggars.com Tina

      Deborah – do you mean that the cracked wheat is too dry and still feels hard or that the salad itself feels to you like it needs more liquid? If you are referring to the cracked wheat, it will continue to absorb moisture from the dressing as it sits, so letting it sit for a few hours (or overnight) could solve that problem. If you feel like the salad itself needs more dressing, you could add another tablespoon or two of olive oil with an extra squeeze of lemon to balance it out.