Seasonal Pantry: Three simple ways to make tabbouleh

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Tabbouleh is a grain-based salad ubiquitous to the Middle East and parts of the Mediterranean. It is also enormously popular locally and has been for a couple of decades. We see it in delis, cafes and restaurants as well as on our own home tables.

Nearly all tabbouleh is made with bulgur wheat, parsley, tomatoes, cucumbers, lemon juice, olive oil, and frequently fresh spearmint, but proportions vary widely. In the U.S., most versions contain a large quantity of bulgur, with small amounts of the other ingredients. In Lebanon, which some people claim is where the salad originated, there is a greater quantity of parsley and other greens, with a fairly small amount of bulgur.

In Israel, it may be made with Israeli couscous, a round pasta about the size of a peppercorn.

As Americans increasingly avoid wheat, substitutes for bulgur — mostly seeds, including quinoa, millet and teff— have become increasingly popular. Any of today’s recipes can be made with one of these.

Tabbouleh presents an opportunity to adapt the dish not only to one’s dietary preferences but also to fit the seasons.

Using the basic formula, you can omit tomatoes and cucumbers in the fall and spring, using, instead, celery, green olives and avocado. Sorrel is great as an addition or a substitute for parsley, cilantro, spearmint and spinach, should any of those not be available.

But it’s the middle of summer, the perfect time to enjoy a traditional tabbouleh.

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I like to serve this tabbouleh with either plain whole milk yogurt or a chunk of feta cheese and, sometimes, good hearth bread. On a hot night, it is a full meal.

Summer Tabbouleh

Makes 6 to 10 servings

1 cup medium-grain bulgur

— Lemon Vinaigrette (recipe follows)

— Pinch of ground cayenne

— Pinch of ground cinnamon

1 serrano, minced

1 bunch (8 to 10) scallions, trimmed and thinly sliced

1 cucumber, peeled, seed and cut into very small dice

4 medium-size backyard-quality tomatoes, cut into small dice

¾ cup chopped fresh Italian parsley

½ cup fresh spearmint, cut into very thin crosswise ribbons

¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro

— Kosher salt

— Black pepper in a mill

Put the bulgur into a strainer, shake out any debris, rinse under cool water, and set the strainer with the grain in it in a large bowl. Cover with water and set aside for 10 to 15 minutes.

Lift the strainer out of the bowl and shake off the water. Either press the bulgur in the strainer to release as much water as possible or wrap the bulgur in a clean tea towel and twist out the water.

Put the bulgur in a large glass or porcelain bowl and pour the dressing over it. Stir in the cayenne, cinnamon and serrano.

Scatter the scallions on top of the grain, followed by the cucumbers and tomatoes. Top with parsley, cilantro and mint. Cover tightly and refrigerate for several hours or overnight.

To serve, use two large salad spoons or forks to toss the ingredients together, being sure to reach to the bottom of the bowl to incorporate the bulgur and dressing. Taste and season with salt and pepper.

Enjoy right away. Cover and refrigerate leftovers for no more than two days.

Lemon Vinaigrette

Makes about 2/3 cup

1 small shallot, minced

1 garlic clove, minced

1 teaspoon grated lemon zest

2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon zest, plus more to taste

— Kosher salt

6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

— Black pepper in a mill

Put the shallot, garlic and lemon zest into a mixing bowl or wide-mouthful Mason jar, add the lemon juice, and let sit for 15 to 20 minutes.

Season generously with salt, add the olive oil and either mix with a fork or small whisk or seal the jar and shake it vigorously. Taste and correct for salt and acid (if using Meyer lemons, you may need to add more juice).

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I began making this version of tabbouleh when I lived in the rolling hills of Lakeville, about 8 miles east of Petaluma.

At that time, it was almost impossible to find Italian — i.e., flat leaf — parsley and so I used spinach instead, which was abundant in my garden.

Curly-leaf parsley has both a texture and a flavor that I find intrusive. Once Italian parsley began showing up in our markets, I added it to this version; otherwise, it is unchanged.

Lakeville Tabbouleh, with Spinach

Makes 6 to 10 servings

1 cup medium-grain bulgur wheat, rinsed under warm water, drained

¾ cup extra virgin olive oil

½ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice

2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more to taste

— Black pepper in a mill

1 bunch Italian parsley, large stems discarded, chopped

1 bunch (about 6 ounces) fresh young spinach, rinsed, large stems discarded, cut into crosswise ribbons

2 cucumbers, peeled, seeded, and cut into small dice

6 large ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped

Put the drained bulgur in a large glass or porcelain bowl and pour the olive oil and lemon juice over it. Add the salt, several turns of black pepper, and stir briefly. Scatter the parsley on top, followed by the spinach, cucumbers, and celery. Finish with the tomatoes.

Cover the bowl tightly and refrigerate for 24 hours.

Remove the salad from the refrigerator and gently toss it, being sure to pull up the bulgur from the bottom of the bowl, and mix it thoroughly with the other ingredients.

Taste and correct for salt.

Enjoy right away or cover and refrigerate for up to 3 days, though the salad is best if enjoyed right away.

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Sometimes small Romaine leaves are used to scoop up tabbouleh. In this version, which is my own, the tabbouleh is served atop sliced Romaine leaves, which adds a refreshing flavor and bright texture to the dish.

Israeli Tabbouleh

Makes 4 to 6 servings

¾ cup dry Israeli couscous

— Kosher salt

6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 small shallot, minced

2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice, plus more to taste

1 cup fresh Italian parsley leaves, chopped

½ cup fresh spearmint leaves, chopped

1 Armenian or similar cucumber, cut into small dice

3 cups cherry tomatoes of various colors, quartered

— Black pepper in a mill

1 small to medium Romaine lettuce, leaves separated

Fill a medium saucepan two-thirds full with water, season generously with salt and bring to a boil over high heat.

Stir in the couscous and cook according to package directions until just tender. Drain, rinse thoroughly in cool water, drain well, and tip into a medium bowl.

Pour about a third of the olive oil over it and stir; this should prevent the grains from sticking together. Let sit until the couscous has cooled to room temperature, about 4 to 5 minutes

Add the shallot, lemon juice, parsley, spearmint, cucumber, and tomatoes to the bowl, along with the remaining olive oil. Taste, correct for salt and acid, and season generously with pepper. Set aside.

Stack the lettuce leaves and cut them crosswise into ½-inch thick ribbons. Transfer them to a wide shallow serving bowl. Spoon the tabbouleh on top of the Romaine and enjoy right away.

Michele Anna Jordan is the author of 24 books to date, including “The Good Cook’s Book of Tomatoes.” Email her at michele@micheleannajordan.com.

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