A Beautiful Bulgar and Spinach Pilaf

A Beautiful Bulgar and Spinach Pilaf Recipe

Friday morning I snuck out from under the cloak of San Francisco fog on a quest for summer. I'm back with flip-flop tanned feet and mosquito bites on my ankles and kneecaps to prove I found it. Wayne and I spent two nights with friends along the shore Whiskeytown Lake in Shasta County. If you are interested in observing boozed-up American males crushing beer cans on their heads and then howling obscenities at the full moon, Friday and Saturday nights at the Oak Bottom Campground are likely your best bet. Other than that little issue, the lake was beautiful, our immediate company good, and the food tasty. I made the Bulgar (or Bulgur) and Spinach Pilaf with Labneh and Chili Roasted Tomatoes from Diana Henry's lovely Crazy Water Pickled Lemons - a bejeweled platter bursting with color that went along perfectly with the medley of kabobs coming off the grill.

I like to cook while we are camping (in part because it gives me something to do other than read). But because the cooking set-up is typically bare bones, I try to choose things that don't require too much intensive work or gear onsite. I thought this recipe would work out nicely because I could make the labneh, tomatoes, and onions the night before, place them in separate mason jars and bring them in the cooler. Then at the campground I would use one pot to saute the onions, boil the broth and cook the bulgar. I did this over a fire pit, no problem. I ended up switching out the bulgar for couscous because it cooks much more quickly (more about that down below). The tart sweetness of the roasted tomatoes along with the rich caramelized onions, and creamy yogurt cheese was delicious. In part because of the rich layering of flavors and textures. And the blend of colors at play in this pilaf make it beautiful to look at as well. Friends who come over for dinner are going to see it making many repeat appearances.

For those of you who aren't familiar with Crazy Water Pickled Lemons, I came across it in paperback the other day (here in San Francisco) and picked it up immediately. There has been a hardcopy available primarily overseas (I believe) for a few years. Diana has a such a wonderfully rich and descriptive writing style that there are times I am convinced I can actually smell the ingredients she is describing emanating from the written page. The subtitle of the book is Enchanting dishes from the Middle East, Mediterranean, and North Africa and it's brimming with recipes like Persian Flatbread, Lemon and Basil Ice Cream, Yogurt and Walnut Cake with Coffee Syrup, Rose and Apple Jelly, and Flower Scented Truffles.

pilaf recipe

Before I sign off for the night (and go get cleaned up), I'll also point you to a couple links. On the drive home we stopped off in Redding to walk across the Santiago Calatrava Sundial pedestrian bridge. Go if you have the chance. Shoot for a hot summer night when the bridge is lit by over two-hundred lights. The bridge during the day is dramatic, I can only imagine what it must be like to be there at dusk.

And here is a delightful little video Sarah at Elastic Waist made about one of the recipes from Super Natural Cooking. She makes the Straw and Hay Fettucine Tangle with Spring Asparagus Purée and you can see the entire how-to right here.

Beautiful Bulgar and Spinach Pilaf with Labneh and Chili Roast Tomatoes

A few important headnotes here: First off, I cheated on a few of the steps here because I was camping and had just one pot. I am including her recipe as it appears in her book, as it was intended. Harissa can be found in many ethic food sections, or you can make it yourself. Also, Bulgar is often spelled bulgur or bulghur - I'm going with the spelling Diana uses in her book.

My camping shortcuts: I had coarse bulgar onhand, which takes a bit of time to cook up. Because we were camping I substituted couscous, which took only a couple minutes to cook once my broth was boiling (2 cups couscous to 2 1/2 cups water/broth - remove from heat, cover and steam for about five minutes, fluff with fork). Both are delicious. Wholewheat couscous is readily available here in San Francisco and worth looking for in your local stores as well. I threw the spinach in with the couscous and it wilted nicely, not as good as Diana's method but...it works. The other components were pre-made the night before and kept in mason jars in a cooler.

Another tip, consider making more of everything while you are at it. I used cherry tomatoes (all different shades of red, orange, and yellow) and roasted up a whole pan of them while I was at it. Same goes for the onions.

1 onion, finely chopped
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 garlic cloves
6 ounces bulgar wheat
1 1/4 cups (10 fluid ounces) vegetable or chicken stock
salt and pepper
10 1/2 ounces spinach
leaves torn from a small bunch of mint, torn
extra-virgin olive oil

For the labneh:
1 1/8 cups (9 fluid ounces Greek yogurt)
1 fat garlic clove, crushed
pinch of salt

For the tomatoes:
12 plum tomatoes
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 - 1 1/2 teaspoon harissa
2 teaspoons soft dark-brown sugar

For the onions:
2 onions, very finely sliced
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 1/2 teaspoon soft brown sugar
juice of 1/2 small lemon

You have to start the labneh the day or night before. Just line a sieve with a bit of cheesecloth and set it over a small bowl. Put the yogurt into the cheesecloth and refrigerate the while thing. The yogurt will lose a bit of excess moisture over the next 24 hours, leaving you with a firmer mixture, a bit like cream cheese. Help it by giving it a squeeze once or twice. Tumble the yogurt into a bowl. Add the garlic, a little salt and mash it all together. Cover and put the labneh into the refrigerator until you need it.

Halve the tomatoes lengthwise and put them in a small roasting pan or oven proof dish. Mix together the olive oil, balsamic vinegar, harissa, some salt and pepper, and pour this over the tomatoes. Turn them over, making sure they get coated, ending with them cut-side up. Sprinkle the soft brown sugar over the top and put in an oven pre-heated to 350F degrees. Cook for 40-45 minutes (hs note: less time if you use smaller cherry tomatoes), until the tomatoes are shrunken and sweet. they can either be hot or at room temperature when you add them to the pilaf, so you could do this part in advance.

For the pilaf, saute the chopped onion in half the olive oil in a fairly heavy-bottomed saucepan. When the onion is soft and translucent add the garlic and cook for another couple of minutes. Tip the bulgar wheat (or alternately couscous - see headnote) into the pan (on top of the onions you just sauteed), pour in the stock, and season. Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat and let the bulgar simmer in the stock for about 15 minutes. All the stock will have been absorbed by then. Cover the pot and let the bulgar sit to fluff up for another 10 minutes.

Take the stalks off the spinach and wash the leaves well. In a covered pot, cook the leaves in just the water that clings to them after washing. they will wilt in about 4 minutes. Squeeze out the excess moisture and chop the leaves very roughly. Saute the spinach for a few minutes in the remaining olive oil and season it well with salt and pepper. Stir this into the bulgar wheat.

Quickly cook the finely sliced onions in very hot olive oil - you want them golden brown with some crispy bits. For the last minute of cooking time, add the cinnamon and brown sugar. Stir this around and, once the sugar has melted and begun to slightly caramelize, add a good squeeze of lemon juice and some salt and pepper.

Layer the different components in a broad, shallow bowl: tip in the bulgar wheat, sprinkle on half the mint, then the tomatoes, then the rest of the mint. Break the labneh into lumps and scatter them over the tomatoes. Now strew the onions on top, drizzle with a slug of extra-virgin olive oil, and serve.

Serves 4 to 8 (main / side).

If you make this recipe, I'd love to see it - tag it #101cookbooks on Instagram!
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