No-Cook Summer Recipe: Tabbouleh with Fresh Basil

What to make when it’s too hot to cook
Do you ever feel like you’re in a food rut?

I think we all get into a habit of cooking and eating certain things over and over again, either because your seven year old whines for it on a daily basis or simply because you can whip it up with your eyes closed and one hand tied behind your back.

Although my pantry shelves are sagging under the weight of a large array of boxes, bags and jars – all the interesting ingredients I can’t seem to stop myself from collecting for experimentation purposes, I’ve been watching myself reach for the same things to serve as the basis of a quick, one-dish meal when dinner time is nigh and I don’t have a plan; usually some kind of pasta or couscous.

Somewhere along the line I’ve strayed away from good old bulgur. Remember tabbouleh? All you need is hot water and it magically swells into a nourishing meal.

Way back before we made couscous the new “instant” side dish, there was tabbouleh to save the day. Many a college dorm room or apartment kitchen of mine was scented by that little spice packet that came in the tabbouleh box, with its telltale aroma of dried mint and slightly stale cumin.

I had a few friends over for a summer dinner party the other night, and wanted to have most everything made ahead. I had a Middle Eastern flavor theme going, so pulled out one of my favorite cookbooks, Spice by Ana Sortun, and there was a recipe for tabbouleh that jumped out at me.

It turned out to be the perfect thing to round out a summer meal – fast, fresh and I didn’t have to cook it! Well, not unless you count boiling water as cooking.

What I loved about this version was that it uses basil and walnuts, which was a nice twist on the usual parsley-mint-tomato combo.

Summer Tabbouleh with Fresh Basil

Adapted from Spice by Ana Sortun

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1/2 small red onion or shallot, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt, plus more to taste
1/2 cup fine or medium bulgur
1 packed cup fresh basil leaves
2 tablespoons fresh parsley leaves
1 cup toasted walnuts or almonds
3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

In a medium bowl, combine lemon juice, onion, garlic and salt. Let sit about 5 minutes to soften the onion.

Stir in the bulgur along with 1/4 cup hot water. Cover and let stand about 15 minutes, or until the bulgur swells and is tender. Add a bit more water, if needed, if the bulgur is still chewy, and cover until absorbed.

Pulse the basil, parsley, nuts and oil in a food processor until a paste forms. Season with salt and pepper. Add the paste to the bulgur and stir to blend.

Serve topped with grated sharp cheese (such as feta) and toasted pita bread.

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BLTs with Basil Aioli and Five-Minute Grilled Flatbread

BLT sandwich on quick grilled flatbread
I love the Vogue food writer Jeffrey Steingarten, and one of my all-time favorite pieces from his book “It Must Have Been Something I Ate” is the one about his search for perfect pizza, which, in true Steingartian fashion sends him on a mission to reproduce the flavor and taste of a true Neapolitan-style pizza crust at home.

Steingarten estimates that in order to achieve blistered, dense and delicious crusts a person needs to simulate the heat of a true wood-fired oven that can achieve extremely hot temperatures, somewhere in the range between 650 and 950 degrees, which proves to be just about impossible to accomplish unless you happen to have a heavy-duty commercial oven. His most successful attempt turns out to be firing up a Weber charcoal grill and placing a pizza stone directly on the rack; when the charcoal is arranged properly (more toward the sides of the stone than piled right under it) your everyday barbecue grill is transformed into a little pizza oven. I tried this method and it seems to work pretty well.

After browsing through a new cookbook called Grilled Pizzas and Piadinas yesterday and getting hungry, I made a simple unleavened dough and lit the grill. I actually wanted to make hot BLT sandwiches for dinner, and thought the bread would be an interesting twist. And since it was so spur of the moment, the dough recipe was a good choice since it doesn’t require yeast or rising time. It doesn’t have the fermented flavor that a good yeasted pizza or flatbread has, but for a quick, interesting meal it was satisfying and fun to make.

This method of cooking on the grill would work with any dough you have, even prepared pizza dough from the bakery or grocery store. I’ve also used this very easy recipe for 5-minute pizza dough from Sara Moulton with excellent results.

BLT’s with Basil Aioli on Grilled Flatbread

Prepared pizza dough or Piadina dough (recipe follows)
Basil Aioli (recipe follows)
Fresh arugula or other greens
Cooked bacon
Sliced ripe tomatoes

Light your charcoal or gas grill to medium-high, arranging coals around edges of the grill once they are hot and glowing. (use long tongs and a heavy-duty oven mitts for this). Place a pizza stone on the rack and heat until a drop of water sizzles and evaporates on contact.

Cut the dough into 3-inch pieces and roll them out on a floured surface into roughly 6-inch diameter rounds.

Place the dough on the stone and cook until both sides are browned and blistered, about 2 minutes per side.

Remove from the stone and spread each with some Basil Aioli. Top with greens, bacon and tomatoes. Fold over loosely and eat like a sandwich.

Basil Aioli
1/2 cup mayonnaise, regular or reduced fat ( I prefer Hellmann’s)
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
1 small garlic clove, crushed
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Combine all ingredients in a small bowl. Cover and refrigerate for up to one day.

Piadina Dough (Instant Unleavened Pizza Dough)
Adapted from Grilled Pizzas and Piadinas by Craig W. Priebe

1 1/2 cups unbleached flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup water
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

Combine all ingredients in a food processor fitted with the dough blade. Process just until the dough comes together, about 15 pulses. Dump the dough on to a floured surface and knead until soft and springy. Cover with plastic wrap to rest for about 15 minutes.

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Chicken Tagliata with Fennel-White Bean Salad


Chicken Tagliata

I’ve mentioned that I have a competitive cooking streak. You wouldn’t guess that if you met me though; I’m well behaved and you can take me places. I promise I won’t jump on the table at your favorite restaurant and demand an Iron Chef match with the staff.

The National Chicken Cooking Contest, with a grand prize of $100,000, is taking place Friday, May 4 in Birmingham, with 51 contestants – one from each state. I’ll be there, wearing my red satin sash, representing the state of Missouri.

We’re packing up the Odyssey with my pans and potholders. And the two kids. They’ve never seen me compete at a cook-off, but I don’t have any doubt about what they’re most looking forward to: swimming in the hotel pool.

Tune in next week for the full report!

Chicken Tagliata with Warm Fennel and White Bean Salad
Makes 4 servings

4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
4 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, divided
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 tablespoons buttermilk
1 teaspoon ground fennel seeds
1/4 cup fresh basil leaves, packed
1 1/2 teaspooons kosher salt, divided
1 small garlic clove, finely chopped
1 (15-ounce) can cannellini beans, drained
1 fennel bulb, stems trimmed, halved and thinly sliced crosswise
1/3 cup quartered grape tomatoes
1 teaspoon freshly grated lemon zest
1/4 cup Italian parsley leaves
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 cup baby arugula
1/2 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese curls

Butterfly each breast: cut 3/4 through center of thicker, long side of each chicken breast and open flat. Pound to an even thickness between two sheets of plastic wrap; place chicken in a large shallow baking dish.

Puree 2 tablespoons lemon juice, 2 tablespoons olive oil, buttermilk, fennel seeds and basil in a blender or mini food processor. Pour over chicken, turning to coat. Cover and marinate at least 15 minutes, and up to 2 hours.

In medium saucepan, mix together remaining lemon juice and olive oil, 1/2 teaspoon of the salt, garlic, beans, and sliced fennel. Place over medium heat and simmer about 2 minutes, or until fennel is crisp-tender. Remove from heat and gently stir in tomatoes, lemon zest and parsley.

Sprinkle chicken on both sides with the remaining teaspoon salt and pepper. Spray a large non-stick grill pan with cooking spray and place over medium high heat. Cook chicken 3 minutes per side.

Slice chicken into 1/2-inch thick slices. To serve, spread 1/4 cup arugula over each sliced chicken breast. Spoon fennel salad over arugula and top with cheese.

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