Vibrant, herbaceous, and bright, a classic Middle Eastern tabbouleh is traditionally a parsley-forward, minty herb salad flecked with tomato, a smattering of bulgur, dressed with a bit of lemon and olive oil, and occasionally has a hint of warming spices such as allspice. Perform a quick search and you’ll find there are seemingly countless variations, with modern versions containing a more deliberate amount of bulgur, tossed with still plenty of fresh herbs, onion, more tomato, sometimes cucumber, and again simply seasoned with lemon and olive oil.
This lemony quinoa tabbouleh salad recipe I’m sharing with you leans heavily toward the renovated versions and is one I’ve adapted over the years. We didn’t stray too far from tradition though as the source for this originated from a friend’s family recipe – with Lebanese roots. Here’s how I make it!
Referring to an archived email titled “Tabbouli Recipe,” sent to me in the summer of 2013, I make the dressing exactly as written, then breezily follow the ratios of the other ingredients, without worrying too much about measuring them perfectly. That’s the beauty of salads like this. Diligence is not required, and eye-balling or ad-libbing is encouraged. Actually, the reason I make this salad with quinoa is that I never have – or think to buy – bulgur wheat, but I do always have quinoa.
Cooking the quinoa
I’m particular about how I cook quinoa because my family is particular about the quinoa I cook. This is my go-to ratio:
- 1 cup thoroughly washed/rinsed uncooked quinoa
- 1-¼ cups water
- Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low, cover with a lid, cook for 12 minutes
- Remove the lid and fluff with a fork or transfer to a rimmed baking sheet to cool quickly
If you think quinoa has an odd flavour, you might need to wash it. There is a coating of bitter saponins on the exterior of quinoa that needs to be removed before cooking. Some brands of quinoa state they are pre-washed on the package and some don’t mention it at all. It’s a simple but necessary step and I’ve outlined the how-to in more detail below.
I also prefer to under-cook quinoa slightly. We almost always toss it in a salad or mix it with other ingredients, so I find that using less water than typically recommended and cooking it for 12 minutes results in slightly firm, fluffy quinoa where the separation of the seeds remains rather than clumping together.
Herbs and vegetables
Since parsley is the star of this dish, no matter the variation, it must be fresh, clean, and thoroughly dry. Any moisture left on the herbs after washing will result in a soggy tabbouleh with diluted flavours. A salad spinner works well, or if you have the time, let the cleaned herbs sit out on your counter with the trimmed stems in a glass of water like bouquet of flowers. Any residual moisture on the leaves will evaporate overnight and the parsley will be perfectly clean and dry.
You don’t have to be too fussy about finely chopping the parsley – some larger pieces and a few of the slender stems are okay – but I do prefer the mint thoroughly chopped. We like mint in our house, but we don’t love it. Using a moderate amount in this salad lends a subtle fresh flavour without being too noticeable. If you really enjoy the flavour of fresh mint in a savoury dish, please feel free to add more.
Roma or plum tomatoes are my preference, but really any kind will do nicely, even small grape or cherry tomatoes. Again, to avoid a watery result, remove the seeds from the tomatoes so that you are dicing just the wall of the fruit. You could also chop the whole tomatoes, toss with a bit of salt, and place them in a sieve to drain off excess liquid before adding to the salad. This method works best if using small tomatoes.
Garlic and shallot are not typically listed in more traditional tabbouleh recipes, however, garlic is listed as an optional ingredient in the family recipe shared with me. Since we’re down with anything garlic in our house, I went there with the garlic but went even further with the shallot. Worth noting is that the garlic and shallot should be finely minced to ensure their intensity is moderated and dispersed evenly through the salad.
Do you have to use a shallot? No, and I actually hadn’t myself until recently which happily resulted in my favourite version of this salad. For simplicity and ease, please go ahead and use the entire green onion, especially if you don’t have a shallot. At the time of posting this recipe, we are in the midst of self-isolation and grocery shopping trips have been spaced at 10-14 days apart. We are experimenting with re-growing green onions by leaving the white parts in a jar of water – hence the reason for only using the green portion.
Assembling the tabbouleh
One of my favourite time and dish-saving hacks where salads are involved is to begin by making the dressing directly in the bottom of the salad bowl first, rather than in a separate jar or a second bowl. I then layer the remaining vegetables in order of robustness, starting with the minced garlic and shallot (or white parts of the green onion, depending on your choice), and ending with the most delicate, such as the greens. This essentially allows the stronger-flavoured items to marinate while you prep the remaining ingredients, and helps to mellow a bit of the raw, sharp flavours.
Once everything is tossed together, you should have something that tastes fresh and bright, with the parsley and mint leading the parade, then the tang of lemon and tomato, followed up by the lingering savoury bite of garlic and onion. Salt plays an important role, so if at the end, you’re feeling like it’s missing something… a little more salt will usually get it to where it needs to be.
Adding something extra, like I did here with sumac, is completely optional but not uncommon. The first time I had tabbouleh I was immediately in love with the clean, fresh flavour, but there was also an elusive note I was obsessed with. It was warm and savoury and at the time I thought it was cinnamon, but now realize it was probably allspice. I’ve even had it with cumin added as well as lots of freshly ground black pepper.
What all these various creations have in common is a distinctive freshness formulated from humble ingredients. Tabbouleh can be different every time you make it, but it will always enjoyed.
Lemony Quinoa Tabbouleh Salad
For the salad
- 2 cups cooked quinoa* (see note below about quantity of uncooked quinoa)
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 medium shallot, minced* (omit if using the entire green onion – see note)
- ½ cup sliced green onion* (green parts only, or if not using a shallot, slice and use both green and white parts of one bunch of onions – see note below)
- 1-½ cups finely chopped fresh parsley (washed and dried well)
- 2 tbsp finely chopped fresh mint (washed and dried well)
- 3 Roma tomatoes, deseeded and diced
- 1 tsp sumac (optional)
For the dressing
- ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
- ¼ cup lemon juice, freshly squeezed
- 1 tsp coarse kosher salt (or ½ tsp fine grain salt)
Prepare the quinoa:
- Wash the quinoa well to remove the bitter saponins before cooking. Place the dry quinoa in the pot and cover with cold water. Use a whisk to vigorously agitate the quinoa for about 20 seconds. The water will become soapy-looking from the saponins mixing with the water. Drain and repeat the process until the water is fairly clear.Drain well and add 1-¼ cup fresh water to the pot with the rinsed quinoa. Bring to a boil, cover with a lid, reduce heat to low, and cook for 12 minutes.Once cooked, set aside to cool. To lessen the cooling time, spread the hot quinoa out on a large rimmed baking sheet.
Prepare the salad:
- Add the olive oil, lemon juice, and salt to a large bowl. Add the minced garlic and shallot (or the thinly sliced white parts of the green onion – depending on what you’re using) and let marinate in the dressing while you prep the remaining ingredients.Add the green onion, parsley, mint, diced tomatoes, cooked quinoa, and sumac if using. Toss well and check the seasoning – adjust the salt if needed. Enjoy!MAKE AHEAD: Can be made one day in advance, covered and stored in the fridge.
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