build your own tabbouleh

Tabbouleh

My grandmother grew up eating this classic tabbouleh on her family's farm in Syria, and I usually make it the same way she and my mother taught me. But sometimes tabbouleh inspires me to improvise. And in the words of Wynton Marsalis, "improvisation isn't a matter of just making any old thing up." It's important to understand the bare bones of tabbouleh, and to learn more about the tradition, so that you can thoughtfully and respectfully create something new.

Most importantly, tabbouleh must be diced very finely. This means that you should dry your herbs until they don't have a single drop of water left clinging to them (a salad spinner works best), and use a very sharp knife. If there's an ingredient you really want to include, which can't easily be minced (take grapefruit supremes, for instance, which I use in my ruby fennel tabbouleh), I recommend dicing them large and forming a border around the tabbouleh. There should never be large diced veggies floating around in the tabbouleh itself.

Tabbouleh also must include a few necessary ingredients, but I like to think of these ingredients as categories instead of specific foods. A tabbouleh must have a grain, parsley, one or two supporting herbs, some kind of onion, tomato (though this is sometimes omitted), olive oil, acid (usually citrus), salt, and pepper. Sometimes tabbouleh includes another finely minced fruit or veggie, but this is totally optional.

The proportions of these ingredients are also really important. The most important ratio is parsley to bulgur, but there's no real consensus, except that good tabbouleh doesn't use too much bulgur. How to define "too much" is really debatable, and I tend to use a lot more bulgur than Anissa Helou or Yotam Ottolenghi, but still a lot less bulgur than many restaurants. The key is to avoid thinking of parsley as a seasoning for the grains—just remember that it's a core component of the salad, if not the most important ingredient.

I've come up with my own tabbouleh formula, but there are many different schools of thought and cultural traditions, and this is just one way to think about it. So use the guide below to come up with your own tabbouleh creation, or feel free to check out some of my tabbouleh varieties.

tomatillo tabbouleh verde

tomatillo tabbouleh verde

ruby fennel tabbouleh

ruby fennel tabbouleh

tabbouleh margherita

tabbouleh margherita

classic tabbouleh

classic tabbouleh

pomegranate cilantro tabbouleh

pomegranate cilantro tabbouleh

Kathryn's Tabbouleh formula

1/2 cup grain, cooked or soaked
1 cup minced parsley
1/4 to 1/2 cup minced supporting herbs
1/4 to 1/2 cup minced onion
1 cup minced tomato
1/2 cup minced fruits or veggies
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 1/2 tablespoons to 1/2 cup acid, to taste
Salt and pepper to taste

ingredient inspiration

 

grains: burghul/bulgur, quinoa, farro, fine or pearl couscous, cauliflower “rice,” wheat berries, barley

supporting herbs: mint, thyme, cilantro, basil, dill, fennel fronds, oregano

acids: lemon juice, balsamic vinegar, red wine vinegar, lime juice

extra fruits and veggies: tomatoes, tomatillos, fennel, cucumbers, grapefruit, hot peppers, bell peppers, zucchini, artichokes, pomegranate seeds

onions: red onion, green onion, white onion

 

tabbouleh margherita

Tabbouleh Italiano

This summer, I've posted a whole lot of tabbouleh. There was tomatillo tabbouleh verde, inspired by the flavors of Mexican salsa verde, there was ruby fennel tabbouleh with pomegranate seeds, grapefruit supremes, and lots of fennel fronds, and tomorrow I'm posting a guide to building your own tabbouleh. If you experiment with your own spin on the classic, I'd love to hear what you come up with.

While you can totally do this by mixing and matching your favorite flavors (might I suggest the Flavor Bible?), another fun source of inspiration can come from the flavors in your favorite dishes. Do you like cucumber-tomato Jerusalem salad? Why not turn it into tabbouleh! Do you like mint chip ice cream? Make it a tabbouleh with plenty of fresh mint, chocolate chips, and waffle cone crumbles! Or maybe don't try that because it was a joke and sounds pretty gross. But pizza tabbouleh? That will work quite nicely.

Basil
Basil

This tabbouleh is inspired by my favorite pizza, margherita, but without the mozzarella, because I just can't imagine a tabbouleh that isn't vegan. But if you're more of a pizza margherita stickler and less of a tabbouleh stickler, this salad would be delicious with finely diced pieces of fresh mozzarella. While the soft discs of fresh mozzarella are a huge part of why I love pizza margherita, I think it's my favorite because of the enduring combination of fresh tomato and basil.

So instead of parsley and mint, I've gone with parsley, basil, and oregano, which are more true to the margherita flavors. And instead of bulgur, I've used farro, which is a wonderfully chewy Italian grain. It brings that rustic chewiness of a really good Neapolitan pizza to the tabbouleh, which tends to be a little more refined in its texture when made with bulgur. And most importantly, I've included balsamic vinegar instead of lemon juice, although I've cut way back on the amount. Balsamic vinegar is more pungent than refreshing and a little goes a long way.

Parsley
Cuban Oregano
Tabbouleh Italiano

tabbouleh margherita

yield: 6 servings
total time: 20 minutes

active time: 15 minutes
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  • 2 cups water

  • 1/4 teaspoon salt

  • 1/2 cup farro

  1. Bring the water and salt to a boil in a small saucepan.

  2. Once the water is boiling, add the farro and cook, uncovered, stirring occasionally, for about 16 minutes, or according to the package instructions. The farro is done when it is al dente (pleasantly chewy).

  3. Prep the other ingredients while the farro cooks.

  4. Strain and then rinse the farro in lukewarm water for about 30 seconds. Drain well and add to a mixing bowl.

  • 1 packed cup minced parsley

  • 1/4 cup basil chiffonade

  • 1 1/2 teaspoons minced oregano

  • 1/2 cup minced green onion

  • 1 cup minced brown or red tomatoes, strained, juices discarded

  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more to taste

  • 1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar, plus more to taste

  • Salt and pepper to taste

  1. Add the parsley, basil, oregano, green onions, tomatoes, olive oil, vinegar, salt, and pepper to the farro.

  2. Combine, taste it, and adjust the seasoning to taste (oil, vinegar, salt, pepper).

  3. This tabbouleh is best when served immediately, but is still very good the next day. Use a sharp knife to make sure the herbs don't turn brown.

Tabbouleh Italiano