Better than bulgur? Quinoa takes turn in tabbouleh

Matthew Mead/Associated Press

Quinoa is a healthier substitute for the bulgur wheat traditionally used to make this Middle Eastern salad.

By SARA MOULTON
Associated Press

Though everyone seems to have a different way of spelling tabbouleh – toubouleh? tabouli? – more and more people do seem to agree that this delicious Middle Eastern salad of bulgur wheat tossed with cucumbers, tomatoes, herbs, olive oil and lemon juice is delicious. It helps that it’s also healthy and quick to prepare.

So why would anyone – starting with me – want to mess with success? Because even though bulgur wheat – a whole grain that has been cracked and partially cooked – is healthier than white rice, quinoa is even healthier.

An ancient food first cultivated by the Incas, quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wah) looks like a grain, but actually is a seed loosely related to spinach and chard. Available in a variety of designer colors, quinoa has a mild grassy taste and boasts tons of protein and calcium. It’s hardy, too, and so drought-resistant that the United Nations has designated quinoa a super-crop for its potential to feed the poor.

And did I mention that it takes almost no time at all to cook? Just 10 to 15 minutes.

One note: Freshly-harvested quinoa is coated with bitter-tasting saponins. A natural insect repellent, saponins happen to repel humans, too. Most of the quinoa sold commercially in this country has been processed to remove this coating, but you should be sure to rinse and drain it yourself before cooking.

For the vegetables in my tabbouleh, I started by salting and draining the tomatoes, a little trick I learned when I worked in the test kitchen at Gourmet. Like most vegetables, tomatoes contain a ton of water, which tends, unsurprisingly, to water down the salad’s taste. Salted and drained, the tomatoes are not just drier, they are much more tomato-y, flavor-wise.

Next came the hefty infusion of flat-leaf parsley and fresh mint, two more boosts to the salad’s flavor and nutritional value. The fact that these herbs are usually consigned to the garnish ghetto is a crime in my book.

The final touch? A spritz of lemon juice. Make sure yours is freshly-squeezed. That stuff in the jar just doesn’t compare. Also, you’ll want to break out the extra-special extra-virgin olive oil. There aren’t a lot of ingredients in this salad, which means it is key to get the most flavor from every one.

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