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World's First Fast Food

June 24, 1993|FAYE LEVY

With nutritionists advising us to eat more bread, pasta and grains, one product that deserves more attention is bulgur wheat, which has a rich, nutty taste and is an important ingredient in the cuisines of the Middle East. In the West, the most famous bulgur dish is Tabbouleh, a Lebanese salad flavored with parsley, mint and tomatoes. But there are many other ways to use this versatile grain.

In Jerusalem, I've had peppery bulgur wheat topped with spicy meat stew, a specialty of the Kurdish Jews. In Los Angeles, I enjoyed an aromatic bulgur wheat salad with peppers and onions at the Armenian Cultural Festival. And at parties given by friends of mine from Middle Eastern lands, I indulged in kibbeh , a fried pastry made of a bulgur shell enclosing a lamb filling.

Bulgur wheat is perfect for quick and easy cooking. It cooks in 15 minutes and is a delicious accompaniment for vegetables and meat. Indeed, bulgur was one of the world's first fast foods; it has been a staple in the Middle East since ancient times. For salads, it can be prepared even without cooking; the customary way to prepare tabbouleh is to steep the wheat in hot water.

Basically bulgur is wheat that has been steamed, dried and cracked into small pieces. This process makes the wheat fast and easy to cook at home, in contrast to whole-wheat kernels, which require soaking and lengthy cooking. The bulgur grains are light-brown, about the color of brown rice.

In Middle Eastern and Armenian grocery stores, bulgur comes in several sizes--fine, medium and coarse. Purists insist that fine bulgur is best for salads, medium is for pilafs, and large grains are for soups. Actually, medium works in all these types of dishes and is the size most often available in natural food stores and some supermarkets.

Bulgur wheat is usually defined as "cracked wheat," but some health-food stores carry another type of cracked wheat for which the grains are crushed without being steamed. Both can be used interchangeably in cooking. Sometimes bulgur is sold as "tabbouleh mix," with herbs and spices added to the wheat; this too can be used in recipes calling for bulgur wheat.

As a side dish, meatless main course or stuffing for poultry or vegetables, bulgur wheat is usually prepared as pilaf. You can make pilaf in two ways--by dry-roasting the grains in the pan or, for a richer result, by sauteing them--and then adding liquid, usually stock or water. Vegetables such as sauteed onions, mushrooms, peppers, tomatoes or eggplant cubes can be added. Some Middle Eastern recipes call for cooking the bulgur wheat with lentils, garbanzo beans or diced meat. For festive dinners, bulgur pilaf is topped with plumped raisins and toasted pine nuts, almonds or other nuts.

Bulgur wheat is especially popular in Lebanese, Armenian, Syrian, Jordanian, Egyptian, Kurdish, Turkish and Sephardic Jewish cuisines. The favorite flavors of these cuisines are evident in the seasonings of traditional recipes: garlic, mint, basil, cilantro, green onions, cumin, ground coriander seeds and cinnamon.

Bulgur is sometimes called the "rice of the poor." But with our current quest for a variety of lean, tasty grain dishes, bulgur should be a welcome addition to menus, whether sumptuous or simple.

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Serve this pilaf as a side dish with grilled or roasted chicken, or as a vegetarian main course accompanied by yogurt and a Mediterranean salad of diced tomatoes, cucumbers and green onions.

BULGUR WHEAT PILAF WITH MUSHROOMS, PEAS AND PINE NUTS 3 to 4 tablespoons vegetable oil, olive oil or butter 1 medium onion, chopped 4 medium cloves garlic, minced 1 1/2 cups medium bulgur wheat 3 cups vegetable broth or chicken broth or water Salt Freshly ground pepper 1/2 pound mushrooms, thinly sliced 2 cups cooked peas 1/4 cup chopped parsley 1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted

Heat 2 to 3 tablespoons oil in heavy, medium saucepan over medium heat. Add onion and cook, stirring often, until tender, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook 1 minute. Add bulgur and saute, stirring, 2 minutes. Add broth and salt and pepper to taste. Bring to boil. Reduce heat to low. Cover and cook until water is absorbed, about 15 minutes.

Heat remaining 1 tablespoon oil in large skillet over medium heat. Add mushrooms and salt and pepper to taste. Saute until golden brown, about 4 minutes. Add peas and heat through.

Gently stir mushroom mixture into bulgur pilaf with fork. Stir in parsley. Taste and adjust seasonings. Transfer to serving dish. Sprinkle with pine nuts and serve immediately. Makes 4 main-course or 6 side-dish servings.

Dry-Roasted Bulgur Pilaf:

Omit all but 1 tablespoon oil (for sauteing mushrooms). Omit onion. Dry-roast bulgur wheat with garlic over medium heat 2 minutes. Add stock and continue as above.

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