This time of year, with parsley, tomatoes, cucumbers and onions all in season, my thoughts inevitably turn to tabouli, the Old World parsley salad. It’s a dish with rich history across the Middle East and Mediterranean regions, from Lebanon to Israel to the Caucuses. There are wells of deep regional knowledge and traditions regarding how it should be made, and it would be presumptuous to suggest that anyone is making it wrong. But I can say with certainty that if you aren’t using the trick I learned from a farmer in Montana, then your tabouli, however you make it, could probably be improved.
In addition to tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, parsley and lime, most formulations of tabouli also call for bulgur, or chopped wheat grains. Bulgur provides an earthy, chewy balance to the vegetable portions of the salad. It must be rehydrated in order to be used, and here is where my farmer friend’s trick can be used to take almost any batch of tabouli to the next level.
Most recipes call for soaking the bulgur in hot water until its soft, and then mixing the rehydrated grains with the salad’s other components. But in the height of summer, when the tomatoes have juice to spare, my farmer friend’s tomato juice tabouli trick puts that juice to much better use than what normally happens when juicy tomatoes are chopped.
All too often this juice gets left behind on the cutting board in the form of a mess, after the tomatoes have been chopped. My friend’s trick is to select the juiciest tomatoes you can find, and put their juices to work. The tomatoes go into a blender, and the bulgur is soaked in the red slurry that results. This way, no water is added to the bulgur beyond the moisture contributed by its ingredients. Bulgur that’s rehydrated in pureed tomato has more intense vegetable flavor than bulgur that was soaked in water. And it’s also red, orange or pink hued, depending on the type of tomatoes that are used.
Countless tomatoes are currently sagging under their own weight on nearby vines and windowsills. At farmers markets, growers have been known to offer discounts on specimens that are so unstable you’re afraid they won’t survive the trip home. Those are the fruits you want to use in tomato juice tabouli.
If you, like half of the world, has suddenly become gluten intolerant-or if you’re otherwise averse to wheat-there are other grains that can be used. Quinoa, for example, can make a tasty tabouli. But alas, the tomato juice trick won’t work with quinoa, which stays crunchy no matter how long you soak it. Thus, when employing the tomato juice trick to make tabouli with alternative grains, an advanced test-soak is advised.
While considerations of tomatoes and grains are important, it’s worth remembering that tabouli, at heart, is all about the parsley. Parsley-centric dishes like this are a rarity in the U.S., where the tasty, nutritious herb is all too often stuck on the side of the plate, next to the orange slice. Tabouli, in its forest green glory, makes up for some of this insult to parsley.
Here is how I make tabouli. Take or leave the rest of the recipe, but do make note of how the bulgur is soaked in the tomato juice. However you make your tabouli, the tomato juice soaking trick will make it better.
TOMATO JUICE TABOULI
4 cups chopped parsley — packed cups, not loose
1 cup bulgur
1 cup onions, finely chopped (or minced in a food processor)
2 cups cucumber chunks, small or large
2 cups of soupy tomato puree
2 cloves garlic (plus or minus, to taste) grated, chopped or pressed
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 Tbsp. lime or lemon juice — and have more on hand to add to taste
½ tsp. salt — and then to taste
Sprinkle of mint leaves
Mix and match whatever tomatoes are available and juicy, from lipstick red slicers to yellow cherries to mottled, funky heirlooms. With low-acid tomatoes like Brandywines you may need to add more lime.
Cut the tomatoes into quarters, spilling as little juice as possible. Add a pinch of salt to the blender, then the garlic and tomatoes, the softest pieces first. Blend until you have a slurry with occasional tomato chunks. For every two cups of this pinkish soup, mix a cup of bulgur wheat, along with the lime juice. Let it sit for two-to-three hours.
Before washing the parsley, untie the bunches and look through them, picking out any yellow or rotten leaves. Assuming no slime, decay, or serious contamination remains, wash the parsley by the bunch, by gripping the stem end and dunking the leaf end in a big bowl of clean water, with a tablespoon of added vinegar. If the water stays clean, you’re done. If the water’s dirty, change and repeat until it stays clean after dunking.
Holding the bunch, cut off the stems at the bottom of the leafy area. Then chop the leaves. A sharp knife is advised, which won’t crush the leaves as it cuts. Most recipes call for cutting the leaves finely. I like some coarsely cut leaves in the mix as well.
If using mint, add it a little at a time, because a little can go a long way.
Combine the ingredients in a bowl, including salt, onion, cucumber and olive oil. After mixing, adjust salt and lime if necessary, and mix again. It’s ready to eat immediately, but if you let the ingredients get to know each other better over the course of an afternoon, that bonding will pay off.
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