There are many spellings and many more variations on this wonderful Lebanese-Syrian-Middle Eastern-Arabic-Turkish-turned-American dish made of wheat, parsley, lemons, tomatoes, and often feta, mint, cucumbers, and onions.
I’m lucky in that my neighbor Linda is of Lebanese descent and she can help me anytime I dip my little redneck toe in to international waters. I love tabbouli. And Linda and I had a chat about it the other day and it caused me to NEED to make it. What I learned from Linda, the internet generally, and two very excellent cookbooks which have been lent to me by sweet Linda (Lebanese Cuisine by Anissa Helou and Scheherazade Cooks! By Wadeeha Atiyeh), is that how the dish turns out is utterly determined by family preference and that no two recipes for it are exactly the same. I really love recipes like that, because when you take away the rules, people play and they trust their own instincts.
I often remark to myself…and I remark to myself all the time…that it is wonderful to not really know what the rules are because then you are free to “create art.” In this case, cracked wheat, also known as bulgur (parboiled, dried, cracked wheat) is your canvas. Linda told me that the way the dish turns out can be influenced greatly by how you use the dish. Some families use it as a side dish, like a vegetable. And some use it as a salad. And some use it as an entrée salad and will add chicken and other heartier ingredients. Linda traditionally makes it like a salad and therefore uses a great deal more parsley than I used in this dish. Next time, I will add more, because I quite liked it.
I have a 5 minute history with curly leaf parsley that has had it sitting on the back burner, so to speak, for approximately 30 years. When I was about 10 years old in Mrs. Hudson’s 4th grade class (I think that is right) at Notre Dame Elementary School in Wichita Falls, TX, we had a “Passover meal” in religion class which consisted of a sprig of curly parsley dipped in salt water (bitter herbs for the bitterness of slavery and salt water for the tears of the slaves). And there we sat in the classroom with parsley stuck in our throats. Frankly, I wish I had paid more attention to the message than the scratchy parsley, but I was 10. What do you expect? And yesterday was actually the first time in a LONG time that I paused to consider my childish aversion to it. Therapy is complete. Now I want loads of parsley in my tabbouli. Perspective is a funny thing…talking about Lebanese food through the Catholic lens of a long gone child’s vision of a Jewish holiday. Can anyone say melting pot?
I am going to give you my framework for the tabbouli that I made, of which Linda approved with only a few minor reservations which I have covered in the instructions. Your job is to taste it as you go along and modify it to your very unique tastes so that you and yours can have your own tabbouli tradition.
2 bunches curly parsley, at least (not flat leaf)
lemons (buy 4…you might have one left over)
feta cheese (I like a lot)
cucumber, seeded and chopped fine
tomatoes, grape or roma would be a nice choice, chopped finely
salt and pepper
green onions (optional)
In a large saucepan, bring 4 cups of water to a boil. Add 2 cups of bulgur wheat. Remove the pan from the heat, cover with a lid and let it sit for 15 minutes. Check the grain for tenderness. Drain any excess water and move the cooked bulgur to a large bowl. Spread it out a little up the sides of the bowl so it will cool more quickly. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and place it in the refrigerator to cool for several hours (This is where Linda would say that if you did a cold soak you wouldn’t have to bother with that AND my mom would say that, perhaps, you could put the bowl in an ice bath in the sink instead of steaming up the fridge…valid points, both).
I used 2 cups of dried bulgur wheat. For this amount of wheat, prepare a dressing by whisking together ½ cup olive oil and ¼ cup of lemon juice with some salt and pepper. Set aside. You will apply the dressing to taste after adding the vegetables. I used all of it.
Chop the cucumber, tomatoes, and (if using) a little mint and green onions. Linda suggests that the vegetables should be cut very fine. I left them slightly chunky.
Rinse the parsley. Take it outside and hold it firmly by the stems and play Jackson Pollock in your driveway. Stated differently, make sure you have dried your parsley.
Remove the stems from the parsley and chop it fine. A food processor is an option but I have been cautioned that it will bruise the parsley and make it far less attractive. And, once you get started it is actually rather fun to chop. So there.
Mix all of the vegetables in with the bulgur. You might choose to start with half of the wheat and add in the rest as you determine what you want the vegetable-to-wheat ratio to be.
Mix the dressing into the salad. Season with salt and pepper as needed. Save a lemon to squeeze over the salad just before serving. When you serve, sprinkle each salad portion with crumbled feta (or mix it into the salad).
Please consider making my Favorite Hummus to serve with this. The crackers in the photos are called Ak-Mak. I haven’t perfected a flat-bread yet, so grab some pitas or some other delicious bread to go with it and you will have a lovely meal. Linda also was a big help with my Hummus recipe. I do love her so.
Linda soaks her bulgur wheat in room temperature water for several hours instead of heating and soaking it. The heated version causes the grain to expand and you end up with a slightly bigger, slightly softer grain. Thus you end up with more tabbouli by volume. I experimented by soaking a little bulgur in 3 times as much water for several hours at room temperature and it does yield a slightly more compact grain with a little more of a chewy texture. I am not enough of a connoisseur to know the difference in a dish. But if you eat a lot of grain and have texture preferences, know that a cool soak is an option, and you will just have less total volume of grain to work with and adjust your other purchases accordingly.
Note on Bulgur Wheat:
All bulgur is cracked wheat but not all cracked wheat is bulgur. Bulgur has been parboiled so that it cooks more quickly. And there are various sizes of bulgur. I used a medium size. If you use a larger size, it will need to soak longer. If you are looking for options on tabbouli and are having trouble finding it, make sure to also search under “bulgur wheat” and “cracked wheat salad.”
Sunnyland Mills has a nice website with information on bulgur wheat and its history, uses, and preparations which you might want to peruse. It helped me on this journey.