Tag Archives: Middle Eastern

Salad, or a Riff on Balance

21 Feb

Salads are quick to put together, but I think the process is a more delicate one than cooking a hot dish. With every dish I make, I want to achieve an equal balance of flavours – sweet against savoury, light and herbal against dark and rich.

The simplest way to get all the different tastes to play together nicely is to apply heat. For example, simmering carrots in an orangey beef stew releases their sweetness into the dish, countering the savoury beef and tart citrus.

But with some small exceptions, that’s not how salad works. Everything is what it is, and the cook has to be much more aware of how raw ingredients taste, and calibrate them to each other and the dressing accordingly.

The following recipe from Veggiestan (a superb cookbook which I strongly recommend you all buy) looks bizarre, almost alien, on the page. Cumin and dried chili in salad dressing? Cooking bulgur in apricot nectar? I almost skipped over the recipe, but I decided to give it a shot as part of my health kick.

And man, is it good! Incredibly fresh and lively, with the dried apricots, bulgur, and pistachios meeting the red onion, herbs, and spicy dressing in an entente cordiale. The chiles added a delicate, warming sensation that tied all the ingredients together.

This is brilliant on its own as a main course, and I think it would make a great side dish at a barbecue, paired with some grilled aubergine or a lamb burger.

Spinach, Apricot, and Bulgur Salad (adapted from Veggiestan by Sally Butcher)

Serves 4 as a main course, 8 as a starter

Salad:

75g/2.5oz dried apricots, coarsely chopped
150g/5.25 oz fine bulgur wheat
200ml/ 7 fluid oz vegetable stock
150ml/5 fluid oz apricot juice/nectar
200g spinach
1 carrot, peeled and coarsely grated
1 small red onion, peeled and thinly sliced (If you find the flavour of onion too aggressive when raw, soak the slices in iced water for ten minutes for extra-crispy onion without the sulfurous burn.)
50g shelled raw pistachios, toasted
1 handful fresh coriander, woody stems removed and coarsely chopped
1 handful fresh mint, leaves plucked and coarsely chopped

Preheat the oven to 140C/275F.

Put the apricots in a small bowl and pour lukewarm water over them until just covered. Leave them to rehydrate.

Meanwhile, spread the bulgur on the bottom of a baking or roasting tray, making sure there’s plenty of room for the bulgur to expand. Cover the bulgur with the stock and apricot nectar and mix well. Pop into the oven for 20 minutes, stirring the grains halfway through.

While the bulgur bakes, prep the vegetables and herbs and toast the pistachios. Mix up the dressing (see below).

When the bulgur is done, remove from the oven, fluff the grains with a fork, and leave to cool for 5 minutes. Drain the water from the apricots, and put all ingredients (except the dressing and the bulgur) in a big-enough salad bowl. Then add the slightly-cooled bulgur and dressing, then toss.

Dressing:

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon freshly-squeezed lime juice
0.5 teaspoon cumin
0.5 teaspoon red chili flakes
salt and pepper

Beat all ingredients together in a small bowl with a fork.

The Power of the Basics

20 Feb

Sometimes in my pursuit of interesting and exotic flavours, I forget about basic ingredients, the ones I use to bulk up a soup or to form the base for a sauce. I cook with them nearly every day, but I rarely think about their taste. That is, until I ate mujaddara.

Mujaddara
is a Middle Eastern dish that is more than the sum of its humble parts: rice, lentils, onions, and yogurt. But it’s the onions that really make the dish. Caramelised until they’re café-au-lait brown, then swiftly blistered over high heat, they add a deep savoury sweetness and elevate the rice and lentils out of quotidian blandness. The yogurt binds everything together texturally, and its tang combined with the spice mixture make a sprightly melody against the earthy, oniony base.

As well as being surprisingly delicious, this dish is also quite cheap and straightforward to source. I would bet that you have rice and onions in your kitchens, as well as most of the spices in the yogurt. And if you don’t have a bag of lentils in your cupboard, you really should! They’re cheap, healthy, and last forever. If you’re doing it right, the only things you should have to buy at the grocery store are the yogurt, a lemon, and some fresh mint.

Mujaddara with Spiced Yogurt (adapted from Rivka on Food52)

Serves 2

Mujaddara:

72g/0.25 cup + 2 tablespoons green or Puy lentils
1 teaspoon table salt, divided in half
92g/0.5 cup white rice
15g/1 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided in half
2 onions, halved and thinly sliced

Yogurt:

60ml/0.25 cup Greek yogurt
0.25 teaspoon cumin
0.25 teaspoon coriander
0.25 teaspoon cinnamon
0.25 teaspoon paprika
0.25 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon lemon zest
juice of a quarter of a lemon
1 small handful fresh mint, chopped

Put the lentils, half the salt, and 480ml/2 cups of water in a medium saucepan. Bring everything to a boil, then take it down to a gentle simmer and cook uncovered for approximately 20 minutes.

While the lentils are simmering, mix together all the yogurt ingredients in a small bowl, and pop in the fridge.

Drain the lentils in a colander and rinse and dry the saucepan. Put the other half of the salt and 240ml/1 cup of water in the saucepan, and bring it up to a fast simmer. Add the rice, cover and turn the heat down as far as it goes, without turning it off. Simmer for 15-20 minutes, or until your rice is done.

While the rice is simmering, melt together the butter and a tablespoon of olive oil in a sauté pan on medium-low heat. When the butter is close to dissolving completely, add the onions and stir to incorporate. Fry slowly until onions have started to soften, about five minutes.

Now turn the flame up to medium and cook the onions until they’re soft and light brown all over, stirring very frequently, about 12-15 minutes. If the onions start to stick, add a tablespoon of water to loosen things up.

When onions are browned, turn the heat up to high. Fry them for another three minutes, stirring very occasionally. Don’t be afraid to char the onions a little bit – you want them to be getting quite crispy in parts.

In a serving bowl, combine the lentils, rice, and onions, and leave to rest for at least 15 minutes so the flavours mingle. Taste the mixture for salt – you’ll want to err on the side of undersalting, since the yogurt is also salted.

After the rest, serve up topped with yogurt.