The first time I tasted tabbouleh it was not at the hands of a Lebanese chef, or even a Lebanese. It was a Filipina who was co-owner of a Mediterranean restaurant in St. Louis, Missouri’s Central West End. Hubby and I were dating at the time, and out on a Friday night, we were hoping to walk into a nice restaurant and have dinner. But dining at CWE (unless you wanted a quick bite like pizza or Subway) usually meant you had to have a reservation, which we didn’t. Your other options, of course, are the numerous holes-in-the-wall, but who knows which were good and which weren’t? Back then I didn’t have Google to query for restaurant recommendations, and while our group of friends were adventurous diners we pretty much stuck to Asian food when we got together. At any rate, there was this restaurant in the basement, at the corner of Euclid and Forest Park Parkway, that has changed ownership so many times in the 13 years we lived there, there was no way to tell what cuisine it would offer when you go. We walked in and was surprised to find a Filipina manning the kitchen. Actually, she was all alone, serving
as both waitress and cook. The menu was a mix of Mediterranean and Filipino offerings (what an unusual combination). Being Filipino, we were naturally more inclined to try our native dishes, so we ordered Lechon Kawali. They were out. Item after item, we asked, and the answer was, “we’re out”. (To be honest we almost left without eating.) Vivian, however, must have sensed our growing annoyance, and asked if we would like to try some Mediterranean dishes instead. We asked her to surprise us, which she did. While we I chatted away, Vivian worked in the full-view kitchen… I admit I was more interested in the boyfriend then or I would have volunteered to help. Talk about missed opportunities!
I don’t remember much anymore of what else we had that night, something grilled, I think, but the one thing that stuck in my mind was the tabbouleh. When she brought it out I thought — what’s this, chopped parsley? Which of course, a large part of it is. I was suspicious, but one bite changed my mind. Two hours later we were still at the restaurant, Vivian now having pulled up a chair and were regaling us with restaurant tales (bad and good). It turned out to be a lovely evening, punctuated by the delicious food prepared by a very capable cook.
No, the restaurant didn’t survive. Not surprising since it was empty that night we were there, and was hardly ever packed the few times we passed it. At the time the Mediterranean diet was hardly known, and most restaurants at CWE were still Italian, French or Chinese. A shame, but lucky for us, we got introduced to this wonderful dish. Like many a beautiful woman, it gets better with age, so be sure and allow it ample time to develop and merge its full flavors and textures. Whoever thought of starting the raw food fad must have done so while dining on tabbouleh.
My recipe comes from Clifford Wright’s Mediterranean Vegetables, though I fiddled with it so much I should just claim it as mine. The main difference between this and most other tabbouleh recipes is that the bulgur is not soaked in hot water, but in cold. I should call our Lebanese friend and ask him how he prepares his tabbouleh…. maybe I will, one of these days.
Just realized my cookbook has been packed away, so I’ll post it when we get to Cincinnati. For now, here’s what I put in it: 1/2 cup bulgur wheat soaked in cold water for 10 minutes. Drain well, squeezing out excess water if necessary (Mr. Wright recommends cheesecloth, but I was out so I used several layers of paper towels instead). While bulgur is soaking, chop up a bunch of parsley — I must have used about 2 cups minced, and his recipe calls for 6. Next time I’ll use 4:D. Some mint — about 3/4 cup. I hated having to buy mint for this recipe when I have them in abundance in the garden at summertime! Then tomatoes and red onions, chopped fine. When bulgur is ready, toss with lemon juice first (he said 4 lemons but mine were really large so I used only 2, which I think is plenty; I’ll use less next time). Then toss with the rest of the ingredients, salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste, and of course, extra virgin olive oil. He calls for quite a hefty amount, 1 cup or more if I remember correctly, but I only used about 1/4 cup or so. The whole thing is tossed and left to sit for 4 hours. Boiling the bulgur briefly or soaking in hot water would hasten the process, of course.
Lots of tabbouleh recipes out there, if you’d like to try it. Here’s one from Joe at Culinary in the Desert, which he makes with quinoa. Here’s Debbie’s. And here’s one that I can’t read, but the photo looks scrumptious.
This is my baon (packed meal) for the 10-hour drive to Cincinnati, which starts in a few hours. Can’t wait to get cooking on a real stove again!