I had no intention of writing about parsley again and I should apologise to those of you who dislike the stuff, this rash of parsley recipes must be very tedious. I wasn’t even planning to post this week considering my imminent departure for a long weekend in London. But then on Wednesday night we jumped in the rusty, trusty red panda, scuttled across a very warm and humid city to go to a concert by the lake in Villa Ada. The concert was fantastic, front row no less – Vincenzo was all glassy eyed. this was proper hero stuff for a reggae drummer – as Toots and the Maytals reminded us all that Reggae’s got soul and that Kingston is Funky.
Just before the concert – it must have been about 9, the light soft and dusty, crickets clicking, mosquito’s anticipating - we had food from one of the various stalls that are dotted around the lake. Vincenzo went Indian; rice, a tasty chickpea curry and some odd-looking but rather good Indian cheese balls. I was tempted by the steaming curry, dithered, changed my mind and back again, before deciding it was too warm for such hot food and had a plate of Middle Eastern meze.
I know my plateful was nothing special, it was good, tasty and fresh, but I’ve certainly eaten much better. But under the cypress trees, in the dusky light of Villa Ada, waiting for Toots while the bass player finished the sound check, a creamy blob of chickpea hummus, another of smoky creamed aubergine; baba ganoush, the heap of parsley flecked tabbouleh, all waiting to be scooped up by pitta bread, was just wonderful. More importantly the plateful reminded me of the delights of Middle Eastern food, how long it’s been and most importantly, that in all this parsley fuss, the soup, the pesto, the green sauce, I have overlooked one of my favourites, tabbouleh.
Before coming to Italy I used to cook, in a very niave way I’m sure – quite alot of Middle Eastern inspired food. My family has a flat on Paddington street in London and I lived there for several years. It is fantastically close to the cluster of middle eastern, the Lebanese, Arabic, Persian shops, emporiums and restaurants around Chiltern Street and Edgware Road. Living in the midst of this vibrant and delicious community, eating Lebanese, Turkish, Syrian or Arabic – please forgive my ignorance if it shows – food at least once, often twice a week, I started to experiment at home. It was at this time my Mum suggested I bought Claudia Roden’s Book of Middle Eastern food, a stunning and masterful book which although neglected since I moved to Italy, is and always will be one of my favourite food books. I found an original first edition, 1968, dusty, musty, the alluring scent of old pages, in a second-hand bookshop and then read it like a novel. The second thing I thing I made from it – the first was hummus – was rich, earthy and beautifully simple Lebanese tabbouleh.
I’d eaten plenty of tabbouleh before making it myself, delicious most of it, but often slightly wet with tomatoes or bulky with cucumber which seemed to unbalance the delicate seasoning of the dish. Claudia Roden’s recipe is beautifully simple, just soaked and carefully dried bulgur wheat mixed with finely chopped onion – you use you hands so you can squeeze the wheat and onion together so the juice of the onion infuses each grain – and a vast heap of parsley and mint. This green flecked mass- there is as much parsley as bulgur – is dressed simply with lots of olive and lemon juice. It is a marvelous dish, humble and elegant in the same moment, the earthy bulgur, the fragrant grassy parsley, the refreshing mint, the acidic bite of the lemon, the olive oil of course.
I think that tabbouleh is best in the company of others, in both senses. It’s best eaten amidst the chatter and clatter of people, hands, voices and a muddle of different dishes. My ideal plate would be a spoonful of thick yogurt laced with cucumber and mint, another of hummus creamy with tahini (my friend Daniela’s recipe. She is brilliant cook and I am trying to convince her to write in English more), maybe a stuffed vine leaf or a thick slice of grilled halloumi, some sultry baba ganoush . With all this in mind, I was tempted to dash to the shops for yogurt, chickpeas and aubergines. But thrift got the better of me -for a change- the only dash was for bulgur wheat, all the other ingredients were from the fridge. Pork kebabs, a-kind-of-Turkish-shish-kebab I suppose. We marinated the pork for a couple of hours in olive oil, lemon , garlic and crushed bay leaves, then threaded the cubes on skewers and grilled them. I also made a tomato, cucumber, red onion and black olive salad.
- 25og Bulgar wheat
- 5 tablespoons of very finely chopped spring or mild red onion
- salt and black pepper
- 50g ( about a cup and a half) of finely chopped parsley
- 3 tablespoons chopped mint
- 6 tbsp extra virgin olive oil (plus extra if necessary)
- 5 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice (plus extra if necessary)
Soak the Bulgar wheat in cold water for half and hour, it will expand enormously. Drain it and squeeze out as much moisture as possible with your hands, then spread it out on a clean dry tea towel to dry further.
In a large bowl mix the Bulgar with the onion squeezing it with your hands so the onion penetrates the Bulgar. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add the parsley, mint, olive oil and lemon and mix well. taste and season, add more oil and lemon if you feel it is necessary, it should be distinctly lemony.
I am off to London tonight. I should really be packing and buying vast hunks of Pecorino Romano to tuck in my suitcases for my siblings or at least getting ready for my last lesson with the little monsters this afternoon. I shouldn’t be typing away. I am already thinking of lunch, the rest of the tabbouleh and the chickpeas that have soaked all night in preparation for some humus. We just need more olives and bread. I have a feeling this might be a bit of a Middle Eastern July here in Rome so I have left the Book of Middle Eastern Food open on the table ready for my return.
Now I am going to pack. Have a great weekend.