Bulgur, Beirut style

For a more elegant way to serve bulgur-wheat pilaf, you can use it as a stuffing for vegetables.

Author Joumana Accad's bulgur wheat and tomato pilaf flavored with allspice and sautéed onions (photo credit: JOUMANA ACCAD)
Author Joumana Accad's bulgur wheat and tomato pilaf flavored with allspice and sautéed onions
(photo credit: JOUMANA ACCAD)
Bulgur wheat is so central to the cooking of Beirut that author Joumana Accad chose bulgur pilaf as the first recipe in her book Taste of Beirut.
Making bulgur pilaf, a popular accompaniment for kebabs, is fast and easy. Accad toasts the bulgur with a little hot olive oil in a saucepan, adds an equal volume of water and a sprinkling of salt, covers the pan and cooks the mixture briefly. Fine bulgur takes only five minutes; coarse bulgur needs brief soaking before being toasted and takes about 15 minutes to cook.
Bulgur pilaf can also be the basis for easy supper dishes. Last week we flavored bulgur pilaf with Turkish pepper paste (semi-hot) and mixed in cooked edamame (green soy beans) and sliced cooked carrots, mushrooms, cauliflower, zucchini and yellow squash. All this colorful dish needed for finishing was a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil, a sprinkling of chopped parsley and a little herb-flavored sea salt.
For a more elegant way to serve bulgur-wheat pilaf, you can use it as a stuffing for vegetables. To make bulgur-stuffed tomatoes, for example, Accad cooks the bulgur with sautéed onions and allspice, and adds fresh tomato puree to the water. (See recipe.)
Coarse bulgur is sometimes cooked without being sautéed. Accad simmers it with lentils, sautéed onions and cumin to make south Lebanese mujaddara. (See recipe.)
In Eastern Mediterranean lands, cooks also turn bulgur wheat into more elaborate dishes, notably meat kubbeh (also called kibbeh or icli kofte), made of a bulgur-wheat shell and a ground-meat and bulgur filling; they are formed in football shapes and fried or layered and baked. Accad makes meatless kubbeh, too, such as potato kubbeh with a bulgur and potato crust, flavored with sweet spices and dried mint, a filling of walnuts, sautéed onions and pomegranate molasses, and a garnish of pomegranate seeds. Her pumpkin kubbeh pie has a bulgur and pumpkin crust seasoned with ground coriander, cinnamon and allspice, and a filling of greens, sautéed onions, chickpeas, sumac and pine nuts. (See recipe.)
The simplest way to prepare bulgur requires no cooking at all – just brief soaking.
This is how it’s usually prepared for tabbouleh, but this method can be used for other dishes, too.
Accad serves creamy bulgur salad in eggplant boats as a party appetizer. She soaks bulgur in water with pomegranate molasses, combines it with garlic, fresh herbs, sun-dried tomatoes and drained yogurt, and spoons it into fried eggplant halves. (See recipe.)
Bulgur is sometimes described as cracked wheat, but it’s not the same. Cracked wheat, explained Accad, is not parboiled like bulgur but, rather, raw wheat that is ground into tiny pellets. Cracked wheat, therefore, requires a longer time to cook than bulgur wheat.
Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast.
“The bulgur drinks up the tomato juice while cooking,” wrote Joumana Accad, “and develops a mild tomato taste and a silky texture.... Normally, it is served on a large platter at family gatherings.
Spooning it into tomato shells makes this humble dish look fancy. Despite the absence of meat, and its simplicity, this dish is hearty and filling.” Some add diced green peppers to the pilaf.
Makes 8 servings
■ 900 gr. (2 lbs.) red, juicy tomatoes
■ 1½ tsp. salt
■ ½ cup olive oil
■ 2 medium onions, chopped fine
■ 1½ cups medium or coarse bulgur wheat
■ 1 tsp. allspice or 1 tsp. ground caraway seeds
■ 3 cups water
■ 2 Tbsp. tomato paste diluted with the extra tomato juice or water (optional)
Cut tomato caps off and set aside. Using a serrated grapefruit spoon, empty contents of tomatoes into a bowl. Puree tomato flesh in a blender or food processor.
Sprinkle the hollow tomatoes with salt and flip them onto a cutting board to drain as much as possible.
Place them on a serving plate and set aside. Carefully pour the juice off the cutting board into a bowl with the tomato puree.
Heat the oil in a stew pan or Dutch oven set over medium heat. Sauté onions in the oil until soft, about 10 minutes. Add bulgur and stir a couple of minutes until all grains are shiny. Sprinkle with the spices.
Pour the tomato puree and the water over the grains. If tomatoes are not very juicy or flavorful, add the tomato paste mixture. Bring to a boil, cover, and lower the heat. Simmer for about 20 minutes.
Uncover pan and adjust seasoning, if necessary. Check texture of bulgur. If it’s soft and silky, it’s done. If it is still hard, add ½ cup more water and cook a bit longer. Cool.
Scoop the pilaf into the hollowed-out tomatoes, place tomato caps on top, and put the extra pilaf all around the serving plate. Serve warm or at room temperature.
In southern Lebanon, people make mujaddara using bulgur instead of rice.
“After cooking,” wrote Accad, “the bulgur turns silky, and its flavor with the lentils is irresistible.... Serve it with fresh veggies (definitely radishes!) and a glass of ayran (yogurt drink) or a bowl of yogurt and cucumber salad.”
Use coarse bulgur and small brown lentils.
Makes 4 servings
■ 1 cup brown lentils
■ 3 cups water
■ 4 large onions
■ 1 cup plus 1 Tbsp. vegetable oil
■ 1½ tsp. salt, to taste
■ ¾ cup coarse bulgur
■ 1 tsp. cumin
■ ¼ cup flour
Put the lentils and water in a stew pan or Dutch oven. Simmer for about 20 minutes.
Finely chop 2 of the onions. Heat 3 tablespoons of the oil in a skillet and sauté the onions until golden brown. Add to lentils.
Slice remaining 2 onions into rings. Sprinkle with 1 teaspoon of the salt and set aside.
Add bulgur to lentils. Cook mixture for 20 minutes or so, until bulgur and lentils are thoroughly cooked and water has evaporated. About 10 minutes before end of cooking, add the cumin and remaining salt. Taste mixture and adjust seasoning. If lentils or bulgur are still hard, add a half-cup of water and cook a little longer over gentle heat.
Heat remaining oil on medium in same skillet used to sauté the onions. Put the flour into a large Ziploc bag, add the sliced onion rings, and shake. Fry onion rings until crispy.
Garnish lentils with the onion rings and serve at room temperature.
“This kubbeh is commonly prepared in mountain villages during times of fasting,” wrote Accad. The dough is made from seasoned bulgur wheat and cooked pumpkin or other squash. For a tangy flavor, the filling of dark leafy greens and chickpeas is generously flavored with sumac; you can substitute pomegranate molasses.
Accad emphasizes that it is very important to drain the pumpkin thoroughly.
Makes 1 pie
For the kubbeh dough:
■ 2 cups fine bulgur, preferably yellow
■ 1 medium onion, grated
■ 1 tsp. ground Aleppo pepper, semi-hot Middle Eastern pepper or paprika
■ 1 tsp. salt
■ 1 tsp. coriander
■ 1 tsp. cinnamon
■ 1 tsp. allspice
■ 1 tsp. white pepper
■ 2 cups pumpkin, cooked and very well-drained
■ 1 cup fresh bread crumbs
For the filling:
■ ½ cup oil
■ 2 large onions, chopped
■ 450 gr. (1 lb.) Swiss chard, turnip greens or spinach, chopped (see note below)
■ 1 can (440 gr. or 15.5 oz.) chickpeas, rinsed and drained
■ 2 Tbsp. sumac
■ 1 tsp. salt
■ ½ tsp. ground black pepper
■ ¹⁄3 cup pine nuts (or almonds or walnuts)
■ 1 cup vegetable oil or a mixture of olive and vegetable oil (for moistening the crust)
For dough: Soak bulgur in water to generously cover for 5 minutes and drain well. In a food-processor bowl, place drained bulgur, grated onion and spices; mix a few minutes, then gradually add dry pumpkin pulp and breadcrumbs. The dough should be moist and firm; add a little of the drained pumpkin water, if dough feels too dry. Refrigerate in a covered bowl until needed.
For filling: Heat oil in a deep skillet over medium heat and fry onions till golden. Add greens, chickpeas and spices, cover and cook for a few minutes, until greens have wilted. Remove from heat, taste and adjust seasoning.
Preheat oven to 175°C (350°F); generously grease a pie pan and spread with half of dough. Cover dough with the filling and the pine nuts, then top filling with remaining dough, smoothing it out with a spatula.
Score top of pie in quarters with point of a sharp, thin knife, then in eighths. Score parallel lines within each section, and then score crosswise in each section to form a diamond pattern. Dig a hole in the center and score the perimeter.
Pour oil over the pie. Bake for 20 minutes and serve warm.
Note: The greens for the filling can be briefly boiled in a pot of salted water for a few seconds until limp, then drained and squeezed dry.
This dish is perfect for a buffet party, wrote Accad. The eggplant is “resplendent in its silky smoothness, its belly bursting with a creamy, tangy, and rustic interior; fine bulgur soaked in pomegranate-scented juice; labaneh (yogurt cheese) sparkling from a touch of garlic; and an array of fresh herbs and spices for that garden-fresh taste.”
If you can’t find baby eggplants, you can serve this salad in a bowl or cupped in cabbage leaves or romaine lettuce leaves.
Makes up to 8 servings as an appetizer or 4 servings as a main dish
■ 350 gr. (12 oz.) plain yogurt
■ 900 gr. (2 lbs.) baby eggplants
■ 1 tsp. salt
■ ½ cup fine bulgur
■ 1½ Tbsp. pomegranate molasses
■ ½ cup hot water
■ ½ cup olive oil, or more as needed
■ 1 Tbsp. garlic paste (see note)
■ ½ cup chopped parsley
■ ½ cup mixed chopped fresh mint, fresh dill and fresh basil
■ ½ tsp. hot Aleppo pepper or smoked chili powder (optional)
■ 2 Tbsp. chopped sun-dried tomatoes (optional)
■ ½ cup finely chopped green onions
■ ¼ cup toasted pine nuts
■ Pita (for serving)
Line a sieve with a coffee filter or cheesecloth and place it over a bowl. Place yogurt in sieve and drain it for 4 hours.
Peel eggplants, keeping caps on, and sprinkle with salt. Place them in a colander and let them sweat for 30 minutes or longer.
Put bulgur in a bowl. Dilute the pomegranate molasses in the hot water and pour over the bulgur; set aside.
Wipe eggplants dry and heat the oil in a large skillet on medium heat. Fry eggplants on all sides until browned and soft. Remove from skillet and place on a plate lined with paper towels to soak up excess oil. Set on a serving plate.
Place the drained yogurt in the salad bowl with the bulgur. Add the garlic paste, parsley, mint, dill and basil, as well as the hot pepper, sun-dried tomatoes and green onions. If the salad is too stiff, add some undrained yogurt to the mix. Taste and adjust seasonings.
With a small, sharp knife, make a slit alongside length of eggplants. Open up the eggplants gently with a spoon and fill the cavities with the bulgur and yogurt salad. Garnish with the pine nuts and serve at room temperature with pita.
Note: To make garlic paste, halve 6 garlic cloves lengthwise and discard any with a green shoot. Chop garlic fine. Pound in a mortar with 1 teaspoon salt to consistency of a paste.