Spring vegetables are starting to appear on the shelves at the co-op. They are as much a suave to my winter weary eyes as the lilac blooms and apple blossoms. Baskets of sugar snap peas, spring onions, asparagus & baby radishes beckoned me. Before you could say jack-in-a-pulpit I had my basket full.
Now all I had to do was figure out what to do with these tasty spring gems. I knew I had bulgur to work with, one of those handy, need-to-keep-in-stock staples that is great served hot or cold.
Bulgur is more than cracked wheat. Bulgur is made by cracking wheat kernels that have been steamed and then toasted. This process imparts a rich, nutty flavor to the grain and a minimal cooking time. For the purposes of salads, I simply soak the bulgur before using. Cracked wheat and bulgur are often confused and the terms interchanged, but they can not be substituted without altering the recipe. Cracked wheat is made from whole raw wheat kernels which are crushed and require a longer cooking time.
Bulgur comes in different sizes. In general, fine grade bulgur is used in recipes requiring a short soaking time. Medium grades are used in baked dishes that are mixed with meats or other non liquidy ingredients. The coarse grade tolerates longer cooking times without turning soggy and is ideal in casseroles and soups. You can use them interchangeably, however, by varying the soaking or cooking time. To use a coarse bulgur in a salad you are best advised to cook it rather than soak it first.
I can’t think of peas without thinking of my late mother-in-law’s Tabouli. Now, while she was a traditionalist in most of her Lebanese cooking that she learned at the side of her mother-in-law, she was also very much her own person and wouldn’t hesitate to toss in a nontraditional ingredient if she felt it would be an improvement. And I can testify that peas are definitely an enhancement to tabouli. The biggest hurdle, however, to making my mother-in-law’s tabouli is that it requires ripe tomatoes. My dilemma is always, do I make Tabouli with fresh peas (she used frozen) in the spring and tomatoes that are either trucked in from who knows where or do I wait for August when I can pick my own tomatoes off the vine.
I know this is a long winded way to tell you that I choose to make a salad with bulgur and the fresh ingredients at hand. I also decided to be brash and call it tabouli—Spring Tabouli. My mother-in-law would probably forgive me but my traditionalist husband and children probably will not.
To make a lovely spring tabouli salad, bring a rather large pot of water to the boil. Place one cup of fine bulgur in a bowl, sprinkle it with a couple of pinches of salt and pour enough hot water over it to cover the surface. Let it stand for about 15 minutes until just tender, fluffing with a fork occasionally. Drain out any remaining water and gently squeeze the grains in your hands, removing excess moisture. Set this aside. Bring your pot of water back to the boil and plunge one bunch of asparagus cut into 1/2 inch segments and one cup of shelled peas or sugar snap peas into the boiling water for about 20 seconds, just long enough for them to turn bright green. Drain and run them under cold water to stop the cooking. Add them to the bulgur. Finely slice 6 spring onions including the green part or an equal amount chives and one bunch of small radishes and add them to the bulgur. Make a dressing by whisking together one garlic clove mashed to a paste with a couple of pinches of sea salt, 1/3 cup of extra-virgin olive oil and the juice from one lemon more or less. Toss the bulgur with a couple of big splashes of dressing, taste and add more dressing, salt and black pepper if desired. This salad is absolutely delicious as is but… there were a couple of things I wish I’d thought to add—a couple of chopped mint sprigs and some toasted chopped walnuts. I think the mint would have added a nice zing and the toasted walnuts would have revved up the already nutty flavor of the bulgur. Try it and let me know what you think. Serves 6.
Even though it is not summer tomatoes off the vine season, I would be remiss to not include Sittu’s recipe for Real Lebanese Tabouli. Wait for the really good tomatoes and you will not be disappointed.
Soak and drain one cup of fine bulgur using the method in the Spring Tabouli recipe. Stem and chop 2 to 3 bunches of parsley, stem and chop 1 to 2 bunches of fresh mint, finely chop 2 bunches of green onions including as much of the green part as is tender, chop 4 to 5 firm ripe tomatoes and mix them into the bulgur. Toss with the juice of 3 to 5 lemons, 1/4 cup of olive oil, 1/4 teaspoon of allspice, salt and pepper to taste. Add one 12 ounce bag of frozen peas still frozen and gently stir. Let your Tabouli sit for awhile to allow the juices to soak into the bulgur. You will notice that this Tabouli has relatively little bulgur in it compared to most other recipes and no garlic. Lebanese like to eat their Tabouli by scooping it up with pieces of Syrian bread torn from a big loaf or leaves of lettuce. Serves 6.
Sittu didn’t measure her ingredients very often. She cooked using her innate senses of smell, taste & sight. I have a collection of notes scribbled while cooking with her. Quantities were sketchy, ingredients were more predictable. I encourage you to play with these recipes and make them your own.