A Beautiful Bulgar and Spinach Pilaf Recipe

A bejeweled platter of bulgur wheat,chili roasted tomatoes, caramelized onions, spinach, and yogurt cheese. A perfect companion for grilled kabobs.

A Beautiful Bulgar and Spinach Pilaf

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.

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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).

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Greetings from Norway! I’ve been reading your site for a while, and this is the first recipe I’ve tried. Wow! I think this must be one of the most delicious things I’ve tasted in a long while. Such rich, complex flavors. Especially the onions were a surprise, all tart and cinnamon-y, they made my tongue curl! Highly recommended. I used bulgur, and Greek feta instead of the labneh. I’m going to make this for all my friends now:-)


this is a turkish food, there are hundred different type of pilav both from bulgur and rice.

sakir ergin

Labneh, or something approximating labneh, may be bought at Trader Joe’s or any Middle Eastern shop. Many varities of bulgur need not be cooked. Instead, you can soak it in hot water or broth for about 15-20 minutes.


Proper pronunciation of “bulgar”, “bulger”,
My aunt spent the years between 1950 and 1962 in Beruit, Baghdad, Basra, Qatar, and multiple other Middle East locales. She pronounced it as “burgle”. It’s obviously a flexible word … and delicious however spelled.


You can find super natural cooking in Chapters in Canada. I did a quick checkof the Vancouver stores and they do have some in stock.


This is an amazing recipe. I love that you make it as easy or as complicated as you want… it is so adaptable!! I didn’t make the labneh but I do believe I will next time… I think it’s the only way this dish could get any better. Another fabulous job, Heidi. I can only imagine how good it must have tasted while camping!!
On another note, anyone know where I can get Super Natural Cooking in Vancouver??


This is my favorite cooking site, and I have both of your books and cook from them regularly.
But, the binding in my Super Natural Cooking is also coming out. already. Guess it’s been loved too much.


What a great reminder to everyone about the ease and simplicity of Middle eastern cooking! I have long wanted to get this amazing cookbook but am working my way through Claudia roden’s fab Arabesque so will try it later…
In the meantime, though, bulgur really is as easy to cook as couscous or easier – I don’t know where this misunderstanding happened! It’s a breeze: add hot water or stock and let soak for a few minutes, fluff with fork, and voila! I think this recipe is great with chermoula too for a “greener” taste…. an easy, bright summer dish!


I take your point that cous-cous is faster than bulgar, but bulgar is faster and easier and tastier than rice. I’d encourage people to try it — just saute some sliced onions in oil, add a cup bulgar, then add two cups stock or boiling water. bring to the boil & leave on a low heat or turn off entirely. it will be done when the rest of your meal is done. Add chopped parsley for colour if desired. Grilled lamb chops with fresh mango and salad as an accompaniment is my favourite easy dinner party food, but fresh fish also goes very well.


Australian males would fit right in at your campground!
As for your dish … extraordinary dedication and organisation … I’d be hard-pressed to manage canned sardines or something.


i just finished making this and it was delicious! i got second degree burns on my hands and forearm getting the tomatoes out of the oven, because i was so flustered about the wine glass that shattered across the whole apartment 5 minutes earlier, but it was a really great and healthy meal nonetheless. worth it? not sure!!
i added feta instead of labneh because that’s what i had, and i didn’t have harissa so i made something similar up myself with caraway, coriander, cumin, red chili, garlic and oil.
back to icing!


Thanks for the heads up. I just passed your note along to Ten Speed. On the TV front, I think certainly for the time being, my favorite place is behind the camera 😉 but thanks for the wonderful vote of confidence.
Reader, I think I spotted harissa at Whole Foods last week. It is pretty easy to find. Also, on the bulgur front, “tip” just means pour into the pot.
Amber, the cooling yogurt is really nice with this recipe, but you could certainly substitute a range of crumbly cheese and it would still be tasty – goat cheese, a bit of feta, fresh sheep’s milk cheese. It’s really hard to go wrong, although I’d stay clear of the strong blue cheeses here.


This recipe sounds great, I think I’m going to try this with grilled salmon. I will let you know how it turns out


Looks & sounds delicious.
We are going camping on the west coast of Scotland to celebrate midsummer. Will add this to our food plans. 🙂


Let me start with.
I love love love your cookbook. My 15 year old daughter and I are working our way through recipe by recipe and have enjoyed them all.
Though my 85 year old mother in law, who lives with us, wasn’t crazy about the cold avocado soup.yummy…with that said. We have had the book for about 3 weeks and the binding is coming loose. I haven’t lost any pages. Is it designed that way intentionally or have I received a defective book? Do you know if others are having the same problem? Thank for all the great meals…One more question, any chance you’ll become a TV chef ? I know I’m not the only person who would like to see wholesome organic food on television. Prepared by you would be icing on the cake.


Sorry, it’s me again! Where can you get harissa in the bay area?


Stupid question: What does “tip” the bulgur mean?


This recipe is bookmarked for the making and enjoying. The flavours already have me drooling.


Looks great Heidi! One question — if I didn’t think ahead the night before, is there a substitute I could use for the labneh?


That book sounds fantastic. Those are some of my favorite flavors. I’m going to have to head to my local cookbook store to check it out. Thanks!


I am so glad to hear of someone else who likes to cook when they camp (besides burgers and hot dogs) There is nothing better at whetting the appetite than being outdoors and it becomes a challenge to see just how great a meal you can make in the wild!

Deborah Dowd

That looks fab, very summery and healthy too. Will have to put that one on my to do list!

Sarah Bell

Jane, you can use vegetable, chicken stock, or water.
Joe – yes, you are cooking onions twice over the course of the recipe (one as a topping), one as a base for the grain (or in this case couscous). I made a little note in the recipe to clarify.
Alanna, Thanks for the post about the farro recipe! Beautiful photo – I really enjoy reading your site, I was on it last week! -h


(I’m still trying to get my mom to not type in all caps. She doesn’t get it! Ah, well.)
I’ve recently fallen in love with bulgur, but it doesn’t really love me. I cook it in chicken stock and add sauteed veggies when I have to have it and can take the, um, pain. You know, it would be a good camping food because you boil then remove from the fire to cook something else while it does its thing. Couscous IS quicker, though, if you’re starving!
And I have to say … the Martha Stewart in me loves the mental picture of the other ingredients in Mason jars. Oh, yes.


Hey, Heidi! Just a short question. Where it said tip the bulgar wheat into the pan, right after first cooking the onions, is it implied that you take the onions out first, since the recipe asks to fry the onions on high later.
Or i take it you use two batches of onions in the recipe?
Btw, your site is awesome, especially how you talk about making food from scratch. esp. pasta! Love them! =D


Heidi -is that 1 1/4 cup chicken stock in the ingredient list????

Jane Ridolfi

Wow – I’m getting a camping site next to yours the next time I venture into the wilderness!


First off, the all caps are unnecessary. I think it can be spelled multiple ways. I think that is how it is spelled in the UK. It is how she spells it in the book. I can note the alternative spellings up above, no problem. -h




This looks fantastic! So delicious – whether camping or not!


Hi Heidi ~ Just to let you know that I am much-much enjoying Super Natural Cooking, it really helps me think about new ways of cooking with grains and vegetables. Congratulations, it’s a real treasure. And for good measure, today I posted the Farro with Asparagus, which I’ve made twice and find myself longing for in between, something about the nuttiness of the farro and the brightness of the lemon. Just delicious! And fast, too! It’s posted here!


Wow, I shall have to try this! It look fantastic! I’ve just made a delicious vegetable and dried fruit tagine for lunch (recipe to appear soon on my blog), and I’m in a mood for somthing like this now! thanks for the recipe!

Maninas: Food Matters

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