Wednesday, August 20, 2008

You say Taboli, I say Tabbouleh

Parsley has a bad reputation as being hard to start from seed. From "Park's Success with Herbs": "Growing parsley is not for the impatient...the most recently tried method was placing seeds on wet paper...on a plastic meat tray...put atop the furnace...the sprouted seeds were then placed with tweezers..." - well, you get the idea. But in spite of this and although the seed packet was at least 5 years old, I just threw the seeds into one of my standard seed trays with germination medium, put it into a bread bag and onto my bottom heat shelf. I wasn't expecting much so was surprised to see germination in about 3 days. The result was a huge yield - about 24 plants - of curly parsley. I tried to give some away but finally ended up with most of the plants in my garden.

Now, when I was growing up, the main use for parsley was as a garnish (never eaten) on restaurant plates, or sometimes chopped over potatoes. But as I planted these, I thought, "finally, enough to make tabbouleh". Tabbouleh, as all right-thinking people should know, is basically parsley salad. My first taste of it was in about 1960 at Jamil's, the steakhouse in Tulsa that served tabbouleh, hummus and cabbage rolls as first courses before the steak arrived. It wasn't until I was in Madison for graduate school in the 1970s that I learned the name of the dish and how to make it. We did a lot of "gourmet" cooking and having fellow students over for dinner in those days. My officemate Hasib (a Druse Lebanese) returned the favor by inviting us over for a memorable meal prepared by his own bachelor hands. He explained that he was using his mother's recipes. He gave me this recipe for tabbouleh.

Hasib's Mother's Tabbouleh

3/4 cup bulgur wheat
2 chopped fresh tomatoes
2 finely chopped medium sweet onions
1 large bunch parsley, chopped fine
1/2 cup fresh mint (spearmint) leaves, or 1 T dried mint
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/2 cup olive oil
1/3 cup lemon juice (about 2 lemons)

Soak the bulgur wheat in enough hot water to cover until soft - drain any excess. Mix with vegetables. Add seasonings, oil, and lemon.

This is a favorite of mine to make when we have fresh ripe tomatoes from the garden. I cheat on this recipe because I also add chopped cucumbers when I have them in my garden (Hasib told me this was ok) and I skimp a little on the mint. But I always balance this with plenty of parsley.

On trips home to Oklahoma with my newfound sophistication, I was interested to observe that suddenly bulgur wheat was being sold in the produce section in the tiny town of Tahlequah. I thought this to be very exotic. But it wasn't till I was served "taboli" by another former Oklahoman that I realized something had happened after I left home. She informed me that this was a native Oklahoman dish! But it was mostly the wheat and some vegetables. I asked her "where is the parsley?" and she informed me that she didn't like parsley in it. This is like serving pizza without a crust. I have since learned that a number of Lebanese Christians had settled in Oklahoma (Oklahoma City had a steakhouse similar to Jamil's) and the popularity of tabbouleh spread from there, especially after Bishop's ( began selling the bulgur wheat in the 1960s. Apparently now you can't go to a potluck in Oklahoma without being served tabbouleh - except that it may not contain parsley. If you refer to the Bishop's website, you will see what appears to be a bulgur wheat salad, garnished with a few vegetables. It is an interesting story in evolution of a dish - as this picture of my tabbouleh shows, the bulgur should only be stars in a parsley sky, not the main dish.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Cabbage is King

Cabbage as a culinary vegetable gets no respect in some quarters. Novels about the seamier side of life always cite the lingering odor of over-cooked cabbage in hallways of cheap apartment buildings as an instant scene-setter. You'll rarely find cabbage on the menus of exclusive restaurants as part of a delicate sauté, or pictured as the main subject of a coffee-table cookbook. Many of us eat it mostly as coleslaw in fast-food restaurants. Yet I will venture to say that if we could have only one green vegetable on that desert island, it should be cabbage.

For one thing, it is so productive and reliable. Today Kim and I made 20 lbs of sauerkraut from about 30 pounds of cabbage, or about 15 heads - one row. A lot of food that grew there on its own with very little intervention from me once I set the plants in the ground back in early April. Not even regular watering and just one application of Bt to keep down the cabbage loopers that those white cabbage butterflies gift me with. Like all members of its genus (Brassica), it produces both lots of Vitamin C and other good vitamins, and also the sulfurous compounds that give overcooked cabbage such a bad reputation. It is also relatively high in plant protein and keeps well, either as a storage vegetable or preserved by fermentation (sauerkraut). No wonder it is the food of the poor. I've read that prosperity is bringing an end to an old Chinese custom. Often people stored tens of heads of cabbage on their back porches to survive the winter - their only vegetable and almost only food. Now they can afford to buy fresh things from the market.

But cooked properly, cabbage is also delicious and satisfying. And it does stretch the food budget. This year I tried a new variety, Tendersweet. It makes funny flat heads that are perfect for making cabbage rolls, because the leaves separate easily. I used it to make enough cabbage rolls for 3 meals out of one pound of ground beef. This recipe was inspired by the cabbage rolls served as a first course by a steak house in Tulsa. It was called "Jamil's" and was clearly Lebanese or Turkish in origin since they also served tabbouleh and hummus before the steak.

Cabbage Rolls inspired by Jamil's

Blanch a medium head of cabbage, by removing leaves and setting briefly over boiling water until flexible, then setting them aside.

Mix 1 lb raw ground beef, 1 cup uncooked rice, 1 chopped small onion, 1/2 cup chopped parsley, 1/4 cup pine nuts (optional), and 1/2 cup chopped tomato (use canned if that's all you have). Season with 1 t oregano, 1/2 t salt, a grind of black pepper, a pinch of thyme, a dash of allspice, 1/2 t cinnamon, and 1/2 t of Aleppo pepper or paprika.

Roll small sausage-shaped parts of the mixture in cabbage leaves, fold the leaves over them to make a bundle, and tuck them into a large flat casserole. If there are any leftover small cabbage leaves, they may be tucked into corners. Pour over this a tomato sauce, either of home-cooked tomatoes, or 2 (1 lb) cans, chopped, to which has been added a pinch of oregano and a dash of allspice. Add a little water if needed to cover the rolls. Bake covered for 1 hour at 350° F. These freeze well.