Tabbouleh is one of those dishes that lends itself towards improvisation, which is both a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that we can feel free to throw it together without a lot of stress and worry, which has resulted in many delicious, creative variations. The curse is that this kind of abandon can lead to the essence of an herb-intense tabbouleh getting lost. My favorite version of tabbouleh straddles tradition and innovation: it's heavy on the traditional herbs but brings the bulgur more forward as well. Here's how I make it!
Traditional tabbouleh is really a parsley salad with some bulgur wheat scattered in to bulk it out. Mint and lemon also play an important role. Less common but still wonderful is the addition of ground allspice (or the more elusive Lebanese 7-Spice mix). The more hippie version we see here in the west tends to have a lot more bulgur and often includes cucumber. I was tempted to leave the cucumber out, but actually like its crispness here. Let's just call it an optional ingredient.
The BulgurAt my local grocery store, which is both very well-stocked and frequented by a serious cook and hippie-esque clientele (Berkeley Bowl), I could only find the bulgur in the bulk section. I did find quite a few boxes of tabbouleh mix on the shelves, but it seemed like these mixes all had flavor packets of dried spices and herbs included. I suspect you can find straight up bulgur in most natural foods stores and probably in the bulk section, too. If not, the mixes are pretty common, and you can just toss the flavor packet and use the bulgur by itself.
Cracked Wheat vs. BulgurThe Bowl offered two choices in the bulk section: something they called cracked wheat and something they called bulgur. The cracked wheat looked like a whole wheat version of the bulgur as it had flakes of brown bran still clinging to the bits of wheat, while the bulgur was uniformly pale gold. I purchased both and found the cracked wheat to be my favorite. It was chewier and more flavorful but the bulgur was just fine, too.
The Herbs and VegetablesAs with all herbs, be sure to wash and thoroughly dry the parsley and mint before chopping as wet herbs will turn to mush when chopped. Since tabbouleh is so much about the herbs, this is especially critical here. I like to give the herbs a medium chop — not too fine and not too rough.
When chopping the parsley, don't be too concerned if some of the smaller, tender stems make their way into the mix. In the case of my bunch of parsley, the stems were rather thick and large, so I quickly picked the leaves from the main stems before chopping. I like to use flat leaf parsley for this recipe because I don't care for the texture of curly parsley. (It tends to get stuck in my throat.)
I broke my rule and purchased tomatoes out of season when testing this recipe. My grocery store did have some pretty 'heirloom' tomatoes which turned out to be not bad. I find that cherry tomatoes are also a good choice when it's not tomato season. I also used a small Persian cucumber for this recipe. It's sweet, seedless, and doesn't need peeling. I'm finding them around a lot more these days — even Trader Joe's carries them.
Because tabbouleh is made with lots of raw vegetables, it's sometimes a little hard to nail down an exact recipe. Parsley and mint come in different bunch sizes, and can be small and tender, or larger and rougher. Measuring cut herbs in cups is also problematic: depending on how hard you pack them into the cups, the amount can increase by a significant ratio. Tomatoes, too, come in many sizes and degrees of acidity. Onions can be sweet and fresh, or older and strong.
This is why tabbouleh is often an improvised salad and why you should use the recipe below as a rough guide. What you are going for is a vibrant, fresh-tasting salad, with the tomatoes and lemon juice packing a nice, acidic punch. The ground allspice is a fairly new addition for me (thanks to Yotam Ottolenghi) but now that I've started using it, it's become my standard.
When the bulgur is done, drain off any excess water and place in the large bowl. Add 2 tablespoons of olive oil, 1 tablespoon of lemon juice, and 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Toss.
How to Make Tabbouleh
Serves 4 to 6
What You Need
1/2 cup bulgur (see Recipe Notes for quinoa and cracked wheat versions)
1 to 2 large bunches of flat leaf parsley, washed and dried
1 large bunch of mint, washed and dried
2 medium tomatoes
1/4 cup of extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice (optional)
1 small cucumber (optional)
A few whole leaves of mint for garnish
1 small and 1 medium sized bowl
Knife and cutting board
Measuring cups and spoons
Soak the bulgur. Place the bulgur in a small bowl and cover with very hot (just off the boil) water by 1/2-inch. Set aside to soak until softened but still chewy, about 20 minutes.
Prep the herbs and vegetables. While the bulgur is soaking, juice the lemon and chop the parsley and mint. You will need roughly 1 1/2 cup packed chopped parsley and 1/2 cup packed chopped mint for this amount of bulgur. Slice the scallions thinly to equal a heaping 1/4 cup. Medium chop the tomatoes; they will equal roughly 1 1/2 cups. Medium chop the cucumber, about 1/2 cup.
Dress the bulgur. When the bulgur is done, drain off any excess water and place in the large bowl. Add 2 tablespoons of olive oil, 1 tablespoon of lemon juice, and 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Toss to coat the grains. As you finish prepping the herbs and vegetables, add them to the bowl with the bulgur, but reserve half of the the diced tomato to use for garnish.
Season and toss. Add 2 more tablespoons of olive oil and another 1 tablespoon of lemon juice and the optional allspice to the bowl. Toss everything together, taste, and adjust seasonings as needed.
Garnish. To serve, garnish the tabbouleh with the reserved tomato and a few whole mint sprigs. Serve at room temperature with crackers, cucumber slices, fresh bread, or pita chips.
- To make Quinoa Tabbouleh, just substitute 1 cup of cooked quinoa for the bulgur.
- To make tabbouleh with cracked wheat, substitute 1 cup of cooked cracked wheat for the bulgur.
- Tabbouleh is very flexible. Feel free to add more or less of any ingredient based on your palate. The ground allspice may sound unusual but I encourage you to try it. It adds a touch of warmth and spice.
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(Images: Dana Velden)