Tuesday, July 1, 2008

You CAN make friends with salad..

My mother, May, is famous for two things: being late (Dad: "she confuses the present with eternity"), and her tabouleh. Her concept of time is something far too complex to be dealt with in this blog, so I am just going to give you a rounding up of the salad, which I will christen: May's Timeless Tabouleh.

Most of you should be familiar with this most archetypal of Lebanese dishes, a cleansing and vibrant salad, flush with enzymes, essential fatty acids and antioxidants. It is traditionally served in shells of lettuce, but as a child my idea of yum was to take some Lebanese bread, discard the browner, thicker half, take the thin, white side and load it up with tabouleh and hoummous and roll it around, if it had been in the fridge and dried out a little, i'd sprinkle some intense green olive oil over it.

Tabouleh is a dish with a very long history, and most versions you can find when dining out are pretty unremarkable. It is a simple recipe to make, but very specific in terms of technique. It would be a good idea to get yourself out to some of the numerous Lebanese grocers in the inner and Western suburbs, the effort will usually be awarded with well priced, firey herbs and spices, beautifully fresh nuts, vegetables and other great fresh and dried ingredients, such as za'tar, these will give you more range and command in your kitchen. The shopkeepers themselves are lovely to deal with, ask for some help selecting what you need and you will encounter the profuse and intense Lebanese notion of hospitality, an almost violent type of kindness that makes me smile.
A few disclaimers: Lebanese may be divided over the question of religion, but I assure you they are united on one common principle: the Cult of The Fresh. Honestly, you've heard it a thousand times before, but i'll get yelled at if I don't put it in again: FRESH ONLY, that goes for herbs, cracked wheat, tomato, spices, oil etc. This is a naked recipe, there is nowhere to hide aging, lack luster ingredients, so if you would like a lively and not a dull salad, take the effort to purchase well and prepare for making this dish.

Two more things: tabouleh is very much about texture, in Lebanon and for most Lebanese in Australia, a finer texture is preferred, parsely is cut incredibly thin, my family does not prefer this style, we like our parsley cut a little thicker, it gives you more to chew on and feels nicer in the mouth I think. Cracked wheat is the other variable, many people like much more cracked wheat than my mother uses, suit yourself as to how much wheat you would like in your tabouleh.

By the way, I have made gluten free versions with millet or mung beans in place of cracked wheat, I loved both, but let's stick to the authentic version here. The following recipe will serve 12 people. Heh. That is not just because Lebanese meals are usually crowded affairs, but because they have some inherent suspicion that enough food is actually three times what is required, God forbid someone might go hungry! Crank some Lebanese music on in the background, it just isn't the same cooking it without:

May's Timeless Tabouleh:

3 bunches (fresh) mint, no packets allowed!
1 1/2 bunches of (fresh) shallots
8 bunches of (fresh) flat parsley, tender leaves ideal, they should not be too hard.
8-10 firm, very red tomatoes (Lebanese or Roma ideal, must NOT be soggy)
1-3 cups Cracked wheat (this is to taste)
2-3 lemons (to taste, some people dislike tabouleh because it is too tart, using less lemon is ideal if this is to your taste)
Mixed lebanese Tabouleh herbs (I can only identify some peppers, cumin and cinnamon in them)
Olive oil (mum suggests not extra virgin because the taste is too olivey, I prefer it this way though, suit yourself, a milder oil will allow more of the herbs to shine through).

This recipe might be why Australia is in drought. You MUST wash everything at least 3 times, mum kept insisting on this and to prove her point showed me all the texture spoiling sediment that had built up in the sink when she was done (point taken). Let's break this down into steps:

Begin this 2 hours before you'd like to eat, this allows draining. For the draining, either lie tea towels out to absorb the water, or place a big sieve like bowl on top of another bowl, so that water drips from one to the other.

Step 1:
Wash 1-3 cups of cracked wheat, squeeze out excess water, lie on a tea towel so all water absorbs, if you start this an hour or half an hour before, it'll be beneficial for texture, very dry wheat is ideal.

Step 2:
Take your tender leafed, flat parsley and wash under running water three times. Arrange it into hand held bunches, hold the bunches upside by the stems and pick out all the yellow leaves or leaves with spots on them. Mum spent about 20 minutes doing this and thinks it's very important to the end result. Once all have been picked then cut them into a medium, or, if you like, finer, style. Place in the sieve bowl to drip.

Step 3:
Take your shallots, washed as above. Pick each strand free of any straggly or browned bits. Hold them face down in bunches while you do this, it speeds up the process. Chop into thick or thin, a little more or less can be used depending on the sharpness you like. Place in bowl.

Step 4:
Get your mint (washed as above), hold them face down in bunches by the stem, again, do the picking thing. This time you are exiling the black/bruised mint leaves. We leave the mint until last, because it sometimes blackens in the process of having to wait around (just like my dad). Place in bowl.

Step 5:
Wash all tomatoes thoroughly (big surprise, that one), cut the little pip things in the top out (does anyone know what they're called?). Cut into cross sectional slices, about 1/2 cm thick, then dice the slices. Mum says she decides whether to use more tomatoes based on the look of the salad, she adds a few to the mix of green and stirs, if she'd like it to be more tomato speckled, she adds a few more. She does advise to start with less then build up.

From here on, tasting is crucial, it will allow you sharpen the mixing of herbs, spices, oils and salt.

Step 6:
Add cracked wheat from step 1 to bowl, mix.

Step 7:
Take 2 lemons and squeeze, add, mix, taste, decide if more is needed.

Step 8:
Salt, to taste. Mum uses table salt, i've used sea salt and liked it, but because of it's more uneven texture, if you do use sea salt mix it all extremely well.

Step 9:
Add Lebanese spices, mix, taste, start with very little and build ip.

Step 10:
Olive oil, start with one cup then build up. Too oily is not nice, too little and the salad has a harsher and less balanced taste.

Mix about half an hour before serving. Personally, I hate tabouleh cold, so I would not refrigerate before serving.

Put in a bowl, have it with chicken and garlic, have it on sandwiches with Za'tar, olive oil and a little creamy organic goats cheese or pale cheddar, toasted or not, have it with hommous and falefal and roast beef and dijon and coriander and tahini, just have it!

It's worth the precision it takes to make this, people's eyes usually light up when they come to a lunch table laid out with a big bowl of bright green tabouleh. Have containers handy, it always gets sent home with guests.

And you thought I was just about cake.

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