To my mother, adventurous cooking meant scrupulously following a recipe in her dog-eared Mama Leone’s Italian Cookbook for veal scallopini. “It involves cooking with real sherry,” she told us, feeling so 1960s hip. But most dinners in our house were a rotation of roast chicken, grilled steak, pasta, with an occasional stuffed pork chop. Really good food, but a bit predictable.
So, many years later when a friend pulled me down a crumbling sidewalk in Boston’s South End (long before it became the uber-cool neighborhood it is today) into a Lebanese restaurant the width of two red plastic tables, I had serious misgivings. I was in my late 20’s and rarely strayed from the familiar. Can’t we go to the new TGIFridays that just opened on Boylston? I remember thinking.
“You’re going to LOVE it,” my half-Lebanese friend bubbled, excited to share the food of her childhood with me. A woman who spoke in heavily accented English handed us menus encased in thick plastic that appeared to be written in another language—hummus, baba ghanoush, tabbouleh, fattoush. We were a long way from Mom’s familiar fried chicken. My friend ordered several small plates for us to share, called mezze, and I began to relax. Surely somewhere in all those plates, I’d find something to like.
It wasn’t long before a sturdy woman with thick brown hair efficiently pulled back into a tight bun at the nape of her neck approached our table with some tabbouleh and na’an, her simple brown skirt flapping around her calves. I nibbled on a miniscule piece, like a five-year-old trying something new, and relief poured over me. It wasn’t horrible. Copying my friend, I scooped up more of the parsley, mint, and bulgur wheat salad onto a piece of na’an and folded it over, similar to a burrito. It was really, really good.
More food arrived and I remember thoroughly enjoying every dish, but it was the fresh, unintimidating tabbouleh that stays with me some 30 years later. It was the perfect introduction to a food culture that is one of my favorites today.
Tabbouleh is a Lebanese salad that looks like a relish. It’s typically made with bulgur wheat grain, tomatoes, finely chopped parsley, mint, and onion, and simply dressed with olive oil, lemon juice and salt. Variations abound using couscous in place of bulgur or adding other vegetables, but its trademark is copious amounts of mint and parsley. I’ve made this salad with diced zucchini and tomatoes, and sometimes I toss in slivers of preserved lemon. In this version for The Weiser Kitchen, I used quinoa in place of the bulgur for a gluten-free dish.
Go here for the recipes for both the quinoa tabbouleh and for artichokes steamed in a white wine broth.