A couple weeks ago when I ran into my friend Keith on a Saturday morning, we got talking about food – not hard to do when you’re standing in the farmers’ market with an excellent food photographer and overall foodie like him – he was headed home to make chicken with preserved lemons for some friends, with lemons he had preserved himself – and he promised me his tabouli recipe.
Now, there’s nothing earth-shattering about tabouli, right? You’ve heard of it already, right? And there are approximately 37 bajillion tabouli recipes already on the internet. So why another?
Because this is a gentle reminder that it being late summer, hot and tomato-plentiful, it’s the perfect time for tabouli right now, and because it’s even better if you can get the special Armenian cucumbers – the curly ones with the striped skins. Il Giardino Organico has these at the market. They have tons of flavor and aren’t the least bit seed-laced.
And because there is a Story.
When Chimp and I lived in Virginia, we used to throw a big annual party called the Gyroscope. It was a boozefest he’d begun before we were together, and once I came on the scene, I upgraded the food, making a whole lot of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern food, loosely interpreted. There was spanakopitakia and falafel, tabouli, and hummus, and baba ganoush, and tzaziki, mountains of pita bread and piles of olives, among other things.
We have disparate groups of friends – his were all academics and mine were all foodies – and we’d try, for one night, to meld them. A halloumi-frying station was a great unifier. One year we made everyone wear name tags on which they’d written their name and an interesting fact about themselves. That was the best mixer ever.
At any rate, getting ready for the Gyroscope necessitated a trip to Aphrodite Imports in Arlington for provisions, including a big straw-wrapped bottle of pitch-flavored Retsina wine, mostly for decoration, as it was only imbibed by the very brave (including, strangely, one very blonde, blue-eyed Long Islander friend of mine who, mysteriously, made a mean Pastitsio – Greek macaroni and cheese) or very drunk.
The last year we threw the party, I was at Aphrodite and got into a conversation with the women behind the counter on the merits of various countries’ feta cheese. With vigorous discussion, we all managed to agree that Bulgarian was our favorite, and I went on to picking out olives. One of them asked me the menu for the party, and I started rattling off the dishes I was undertaking.
When I got to tabouli, she perked up and said in an authoritative tone, "Oh, let me tell you how to make a bulghur salad. People from Syria and Lebanon call it tabouli, but we call it kisir and this is how we made it back home in Turkey." She launched into describing the recipe, then the phone rang. She went to get it.
The other woman watched her go, and when she was out of earshot, she lowered her head, leaned forward, and said to me in a conspiratorial and somewhat irritated tone, "I’m from Syria. Let me tell you the real way to make tabouli," then launched into her recipe.
I desperately hoped she’d finish her recounting before the other woman came back, or I suspected our peace accord on feta would be entirely forgotten and they would come to blows.
This cemented in my mind that the best version of anything is probably the version the person’s mother you are talking to made.
So my friend Keith (nicknamed Kiki) is Lebanese, and when he offered me his tabbouleh recipe (see, there’s not even agreement on the spelling) he didn’t badmouth anyone else’s. He just told me, "Now mine doesn’t have a whole lot of parsley in it, but that’s just the way I do it." I told him I’d be thrilled to give it a try.
He gave it to me, and it’s below, and it is awesome. But I have, along with my many fruit and vegetable Problems, an Herb Problem: too much is never enough.
As I was following along with Keith’s recipe, I chopped up the 3/8 cup of parsley, and then stood and looked at it for a moment. I hesitated. I thought about restraining myself, and following the recipe as written. Then I picked up the knife again, chopped up the rest of the mammoth bunch of parsley and tossed in in with the rest of the ingredients.
The best version is one your mom made, unless it’s the version you’ve made your own.
1 c. #2 bulgur wheat, rinsed in a stainer and allowed to drain well
4 c. cucumbers, diced. (Keith notes: "If skins aren’t bitter you can leave unpeeled or partially peel. I prefer to peel regular cukes in intermittent strips. Armenian or English cucumbers are best when available and don’t need peeling if skin is tender.")
3 1/2 c. ripe tomatoes, diced (Keith notes: "Beefsteak are best.")
1/2 c. mint leaves, firmly packed; measure before chopping medium
3/8 c. firmly packed flat-leaf parsley; measure before chopping
1 1/2 cups red onions, diced
2 teaspoons salt
3/8 cup good extra-virgin olive oil
3/8 cup lemon juice
Combine all ingredients. Stir thoroughly and let stand refrigerated for at least an hour
before serving. Season to taste.
(Keith notes: "All of the quantities specified in this recipe are just rough guidelines. The measurements are extrapolated from the much larger quantities I always make for gatherings. This recipe is great made at least an hour before serving but is still great after 3 or 4 days in the refrigerator.")
Makes many servings – at least 12.