Sunday, 21 January 2007

Meat on the side (or bastardised tabbouleh)

In the months when I was beginning, ever so hesitantly, to eat meat again, I was sure that vegetables and starches would continue to be the emotional core of my cooking. The evidence at the time was convincing. I had no idea of how to cook meat or fish and wasn't particularly keen to learn. And while I had begun to look longingly at the meat section of restaurant menus, I remained more excited about the side dishes that accompanied stews or roasts than the main events themselves. After all, what could possibly be as good as rustic bread, pasta, ripe summer tomatoes or roasted autumn vegetables?

As it turns out, lots. In the past several years, I've cooked tagines and casseroles aplenty, roasted chickens and lamb shoulders and seared a good number of steaks and burgers. There was even a partially successful effort at offal. I have a butcher, where they know me and let me pay the next day when I'm short on change. As for the vegetables, while they too are bought with care, their position has suffered. Bags of salad get chosen in lieu of stewing or sauteing, the odd, inspired purchase (cauliflower most recently) often languishes in the lower reaches of the fridge. The problem is magnified in the winter, when the vegetables that can be eaten with little preparation--tomatoes, cucumbers, green beans, asparagus--are either unavailable or unappealing. I've done better with vegetable-heavy soups, but they act as a precursor to the meaty main course, rather than a challenger on the same plate.

The situation has been likewise with starches. I use potatoes rarely enough that they need to be purchased specially. I have one bag of rice. Save the odd couscous, it's usually bread. Good bread, I might add, but this carbo-lover craves a bit more variety.

A reprieve came unexpectedly on Monday night, when we were eating the leftovers of a lamb, apricot and prune tagine. (This was a variation on Amanda Hesser's Kadjemoula in Cooking for Mr. Latte). Earlier in the day, I had seen a supermarket magazine recipe for a winterized tabbouleh, featuring walnuts, pomegranate and herbs. There was, I recalled, another version (utilising cauliflower and a pomegranate molasses dressing) in one of the Moro cookbooks. Inspired to use up that bloody cauliflower, I set to work. Discovering that the bulgur I had purchased was too coarse to hydrate properly in the time available, I substituted couscous. No matter. Leftover toasted walnuts were crumbled, a pomegranate messily disassembled, mint and walnut chopped. I ended up dispensing with the cauliflower entirely, though I imagine that the visual trick of the large and small nubbly bits would have been quite clever.

Doused with a copious quantity of lemon juice and olive oil, this bastardised tabbouleh was zingy and satisfying, not only a worthy complement to the better-the-next-day tagine but a contender for best on plate.

Lest I get too smug, however, the cauliflower's final resting place turned out to be the garbage can.

Bastardised tabbouleh
(adapted from Waitrose's free in-house magazine)

I hesitate to even call this a recipe. Vague on quantities, open to variation, this is more like a blueprint.

Couscous or fine bulgur, enough for two
1 smallish pomegranate
a good handful parsley (or coriander/cilantro) and mint, more if you'd like an herb-dominant version
a slightly smaller handful of walnuts (almonds or pine nuts would work too)
at least one lemon's worth of juice
olive oil

Total time: less than 30 minutes Active time: enough left over to have a quick pre-dinner drink

Hydrate the grains according to package instructions. If using hot water, allow to cool slightly. In the meantime, toast the walnuts in a dry pan or a 350 degree oven. Keep an eye on them; they shouldn't take more than ten minutes. While the nuts cool, chop the herbs coarsely and tackle the pomegranate. (I've found that placing a bowl in the sink limits the amount of bright pink juice decorating the kitchen.) Chop or break the nuts into smallish pieces. Break up any lumps in the grain then add the nuts, herbs and pomegranate. Add enough lemon juice to pull the flavours together, and use the oil for a bit more lubrication.

Eat with meat, or not.

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