Picnic on the Mediterranean with tabbouli
Yes, the spelling is a little tricky (“tabbouleh,” “tabouli”); and, yes, bulgur sounds like one of those esoteric grains that are impossible to track down. But no one cares about the spelling, bulgur is just wheat, and tabbouli is an ideal summer salad. Easy to make, full of freshness and flavor, tabbouli comes out of a tradition of simple, tapas-like dishes meant to be shared with family and friends—perfect picnic food.
Tabbouli belongs to the ancient tradition of mezze dishes that spread throughout the Near East and North Africa as morsels to accompany wine and everyday gossip. The word mezze comes from the Persian maza, meaning “taste” or “relish”; the first mezze were fruits served as a counterpoint to the slightly bitter taste of young wine. Over time, the range of mezze expanded.
The summer star in tabbouli is tomato, so it’s worth finding the season’s best. For the most flavor, choose tomatoes by their aroma, a better indicator of ripeness than color. Tomatoes are in the category of fruit (like peaches, mangoes and avocados) that can be picked mature-green and continue ripening on your counter. Just don’t put them in the fridge: Cold destroys their delicate flavor compounds.
Cucumber plays a refreshing side-kick to tomato; but parsley gives tabbouli its character. Some versions of the dish are emerald-green with it. I like about equal proportions of tomato, cucumber and parsley, with a touch of mint. Also, I don’t use so much bulgur that it feels predominantly like a grain salad. But all the proportions are up to you.
Bulgur, the salad’s base, is wheat prepared via an ancient method. The wheat berries are parboiled, dried, cracked, moistened, and ground to remove the outer bran. The result is a grain that cooks quickly and has an almost creamy texture and a deep, nutty taste from the inner bran that’s left intact. Bulgur’s subtle nuttiness and creamy texture are brought out when you dress the tabbouli with good quality olive oil. Some recipes round out the flavors with the warmer notes of cinnamon. I like the simple brightness of lemon juice.
Like other classic picnic salads, tabbouli travels well and is best made in advance so the flavors can blend. The parsley in tabbouli is actually a cousin to the celery we often use in potato and egg salads. The Romans used a single word to refer to them interchangeably.
If you want to play up tabbouli’s roots in the Near Eastern mezze tradition, you can assemble an entire picnic from mezze staples: olives, cheese (feta in oil, or fresh mozzarella); dips like hummus, baba ghanoush (roasted eggplant), and tsatsiki (yogurt and cucumber); and even dolma (stuffed grape leaves), falafel, and kebab.
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1 1/2 cups water
1 cup bulgur
2 cups chopped tomatoes
1 1/2 cups chopped cucumber (about one large)
1 cup chopped parsley
Two sprigs mint, chopped
2 scallions, chopped
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons lemon juice
Salt and pepper to taste
Bring the water to boil in a saucepan. Add the bulgur, return to a simmer, and cook until liquid is absorbed, about 20 minutes.
In a large bowl, combine all ingredients and toss.
Refrigerate at least one hour before serving.