Last week was full of fun. I took my first voice lesson with Molly Kozma at Open Voice Studios. I watched my sixteen-year-old niece and bandmate star in Singin’ in the Rain. I went to a food blogger meetup for a talk on SEO from the hilarious Ryan of The Packed Life. I played my first gig on bass guitar with The Barbary Ghosts.
Last but not least, I met my longtime culinary idol Deborah Madison and ate eight different dishes from her latest book Vegetable Literacy, including Radish Greens Soup, Chard and Ricotta Pancakes, and Honey Ice Cream with Almond Cornflour Cookies. She was every bit as lovely in person as in her writing, and so was the food.
This week, however, has been far less fun. Monday began earlier than usual when we took our unsuspecting feline to the vet to have his teeth cleaned. He spent the rest of the day and night high as a kite from the anesthesia, hiding in his carrier box while we worried that he would never return to normal. Tuesday night I awoke with a throat so sore, I felt like I had swallowed a handful of razors, and I’ve spent the last two days in bed. The only redeeming part of the week thus far was making this lovely bowl of lemon-kissed tabbouleh brimming with spring vegetables, crisps of pan-fried cheese, and a piquant harissa dressing.
I developed a tabbouleh fixation last winter when I helped my friend and dancemate, Mike, prepare a party for his co-workers. He plopped a copy of The Barefoot Contessa in front of me, poured me a glass of whiskey, and left me in the kitchen to get to work. I had never made proper tabbouleh before, and as I tasted the mixture of bulgur wheat, lemon juice, olive oil and salt, I was struck by the similarity in flavor to fresh sourdough bread. When mixed with a mass of herbs and vegetables, the cool salad was simply sublime – a lively contrast to the heavy foods we usually associate with winter.
When a mini heatwave hit us earlier this week, I decided to make a spring version of this middle-eastern favorite to keep us cool. The first local fava beans and shelling peas had shown up, so I paired them with asparagus and scallions in addition to the classic tabbouleh herbs parsley and mint. I added wedges of fried halloumi to the top (because what could be better than cheese fried in butter? Nothing!) and drizzled the whole thing with harissa blended with lemon juice and olive oil. The chewy grain and sweet vegetables kissed with tangy lemon and spicy harissa made an invigorating meal that was heightened by salty wedges of pan-fried halloumi.
Tabbouleh is an ideal warm-weather dish as it requires little cooking. Bulgur is wheat that has been cracked, parboiled and dehydrated, so all it takes to make it edible is a dousing of boiling water and a bit of time. Like all grain salads, tabbouleh is a boon to party planners as it can be made several hours in advance. The cheese can either be served gooey-warm, or allowed to cool and cut into wedges. My gluten-free readers may wish to use cooked quinoa in place of the bulgur, and vegans can omit the cheese or replace it with tofu. I’m guessing this salad would be excellent to the side of grilled chicken, beef or lamb as well.
In true San Francisco fashion, the heat wave proved as fleeting as our cat’s narcotic escapade. Fortunately, so did my sore throat, which didn’t turn into the monster cold that many of my friends have suffered through. (Many thanks to Jay for keeping me full of herb tea and chicken soup!) Temperatures are expected to rise back into the 70’s this weekend, though, and I know just the salad to make.
Spring Tabbouleh with Harissa and Grilled Halloumi
Adapted from Ina Garten
A few notes on ingredients: I know that bulgur wheat comes in fine, medium and coarse grinds, but the stuff I got from the bulk section of our co-op had no such label. Going by this Heidi Swanson recipe (which looks really good), I’d wager that you want the fine or medium stuff if given the choice. Harissa, a Tunisian chili paste, can be found in the Middle-Eastern section of well-stocked grocers, or you can make your own. The one I used wasn’t particularly hot-spicy, but you may want to taste yours first before dousing your food with it. Halloumi, also called grilling cheese, is a mild, semi-firm cheese that tastes a bit like mozzarella, though without the stringy texture.
This salad can be made a few hours in advance, but plan to serve it the same day, as the herbs and vegetables may discolor if left longer than that.
Serves 4 as a meal, or 6-8 as a first course
For the tabbouleh:
1 cup bulgur wheat
1 1/2 cups boiling water
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (from 1-2 lemons)
1/4 cup flavorful olive oil
2 teaspoons sea salt, divided use
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 cup minced scallions, white and green parts (1 bunch)
1 cup chopped fresh mint leaves
1 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
3/4 pound fava beans, shelled (3/4 cup beans)
3/4 pound English peas in their pods, shelled (3/4 cup peas)
1/2 pound slender asparagus spears, sliced diagonally 1″ thick, heads left in tact
The harissa dressing:
1 1/2 tablespoons harissa
1 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice
3 tablespoons flavorful olive oil
8 ounces halloumi or grilling cheese
1 tablespoon ghee, clarified butter, or coconut oil
Make the tabbouleh:
Place the bulgur in a large bowl, pour in the boiling water, then stir in the lemon juice, olive oil, and 1 teaspoon of the salt. Allow the mixture to stand at room temperature for about 1 hour, stirring occasionally, until the bulgur has absorbed most of the water. It will still have a bit of bite, but the texture will be perfect in the final dish.
Meanwhile, prepare the vegetables:
Bring a medium saucepan of water to a boil. Fill a large bowl with ice and cool water. Add the fava beans to the pot and simmer until they turn bright green, about 2 minutes. Skim them out of the boiling water, and plunge them into the ice water. When cool enough to handle, taste a bean; if the outer skin tastes tough or bitter, slip them out of their skins by piercing the skin with your thumb nail and squeezing the bean out.
Add the peas to the boiling water, and cook until they turn bright green, 30 seconds or so. Skim the peas out and add them to the ice water. Repeat with the asparagus, cooking until crisp-tender, about 1 minute.
Make the harissa dressing:
In a small bowl, stir together the harissa, lemon juice and olive oil.
Finish the tabbouleh:
When the bulgur and vegetables are ready, drain the chilled vegetables and add them to the bulgur along with the remaining teaspoon of salt, the black pepper, scallions, mint and parsley. Taste the tabbouleh, adding more salt, lemon juice, or olive oil if you think it needs it. Chill the tabbouleh while you prepare the cheese, or cover and chill for up to a few hours.
Fry the cheese:
Slice the halloumi into 1/4″ thick pieces. Heat the ghee in a heavy, wide skillet over medium heat. Add the cheese in a single layer, spacing it a little bit apart as it will melt slightly, and cook on each side until golden, crisp, and melty, about 1 minute per side. Either serve immediately, or remove to a plate to cool while you fry a second batch, and cut into smaller pieces.
Either way, divide the tabbouleh among plates or bowls, top with the cheese, and drizzle with the harissa.
The tabbouleh is best the same day, as the vegetables and herbs will lose a bit of color, but leftovers will keep for a day or two in the refrigerator.