Grain-based salads like tabbouleh mix grains and vegetables

Aug. 10, 2021
Tabbouleh grain salad with quinoa, parsley and vegetables
A grain salad is a great summer food, like this tabbouleh salad with quinoa, parsley and vegetables. Photo: Getty Images.

Grain-based “chopped salads”— typically a mix of vegetables chopped up or shredded into uniform size with cooked grains in some manner mixed in — are close to perfect summer fare.

Excepting the cooking of the grains, the preparations of few, if any, chopped salads call for the heat of the stove or oven; they’re easily assembled ahead of time, are best at room or “patio” temperature (or even cooler), and allow cooks to select the best and ripest from their summer’s garden.

Also, note that most grains are rendered edible with mere re-hydration which may or may not require heating the water or other liquid.

I’m spotlighting bulgur here, a minimally processed grain of wheat with very close the equal in nutrition to raw, unprocessed whole wheat, bulgur’s source.

Get more tips and recipes from Bill St. John.

Bulgur (sometimes spelled bulghur) is a form of whole wheat that has been cracked, cleaned, parboiled (or steamed), dried, and then ground into various sizes. Bulgur is sold by its size. It isn’t cracked wheat, which are whole raw wheat berries that have been milled into smaller pieces. Unlike bulgur, cracked wheat has not been precooked and, hence, can’t be substituted in recipes that call for bulgur.

Bulgur may be a strange grocery item to most of us, but chances are we’ve eaten it several times. Its most well-known rendition is as a main ingredient, along with parsley, lemon, olive oil, mint (and sometimes cucumber) in the salad called tabbouleh. Ain’t no tabbouleh without bulgur.

However, in its region of origin, the Levant (that enormous western Mediterranean and eastern Asian territory including Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, Syria, and, to some, Turkey and Iraq) bulgur is as common as rice is in Southeast Asia or as corn in the Americas.

Like much of the quinoa that we Americans eat, even some rices, bulgur has been precooked for us at the mill. As a result, it’s very easy to prepare, requiring at most a simple soak of a few minutes to an hour or so, depending on its size or the recipe into which it is destined.

Its glycemic index is lower than rice and most forms of pasta (though, like most pasta, it too is made from durum wheat), making it suitable for some diabetics. Because it retains much of the wheat’s bran, bulgur rules in the fiber department, carrying more than twice that of even brown rice and much more than pasta.

You’ll find bulgur at most health food stores (again, do not confuse it with cracked wheat), especially in the bulk foods section, or in the cereals or “international” section of the everyday supermarket. The grain products sold by Bob’s Red Mill are more and more common these days; Bob’s has bulgur.

But you’ll always find it at Middle Eastern and Persian markets in Denver and, especially, Aurora (Arash, Middle East Market, Zamzam, Diyar, and Marhaba are just five).

In many recipes, note that bulgur is interchangeable with rice, quinoa, barley, rice or small-form pasta such as orzo or couscous. As a result, in this bulgur-based chopped grain salad recipe, you may easily and profitably substitute any of (or even a mix of) these same grains.

Grain salad: Bulgur Salad with Carrot, Red Cabbage and Red Apple

Serves 4-6. You may serve this grain salad as the recipe indicates — tossed — or on a bed of lettuces with each main ingredient (the bulgur, the carrot, and so on) laid atop the bed in “stripes.” If choosing this latter course, mix in the cilantro and mint when assembling the dressing.


1 and 1/2 cups medium-grind bulgur

1 cup water

3/4 teaspoon salt, divided

6 tablespoons lemon juice (from about 2 lemons)

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 large carrot, peeled and shredded

1/2 head small red cabbage, outer leaves removed and shredded

1 red-skinned apple, peel left on and shredded

3 scallions, sliced thin

1/3 cup chopped fresh mint

1/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro

Freshly ground black pepper


Combine bulgur, water, 1/4 cup lemon juice, and 1/4 teaspoon salt in a bowl. Cover and let sit at room temperature until grains are softened and liquid is fully absorbed, about 1 and 1/2 hours.

Whisk remaining 2 tablespoons lemon juice, oil, cumin, cayenne, and 1/2 teaspoon salt together in large bowl. Add the bulgur and the remaining ingredients and toss gently to combine.

Correct the seasoning to your liking, especially with added freshly ground black pepper, and serve.

Variations of a grain salad:

These are suggested variations on grain-based chopped salads; add whichever grain hits your fancy (one will be suggested) and adjust the measurements of vegetables and the choice of dressing to your liking.

– Greek: bulgur, tomato, cucumber, red onion, feta cheese, romaine lettuce, kalamata olive, dressed in olive oil, oregano and lemon juice.

– Indian: brown rice, leftover cooked tandoori chicken, tomato, cilantro, romaine lettuce, English cucumber, cooked chickpea, dressed in olive oil and red wine vinegar with minced cilantro.

– French: barley, cooked Yukon Gold potato, well-blanched green bean, romaine lettuce, hard-cooked egg, English cucumber, nicoise olive, radish, tuna canned in olive oil, dressed in French-style vinaigrette.

– “Chef’s”: orzo, iceberg lettuce, hard-cooked egg, cooked turkey breast, cooked chickpea, Swiss cheese, with Thousand Island dressing.

– “Cobb”: orzo, romaine lettuce, cooked bacon, cooked chicken breast, hard-cooked egg, tomato, avocado, blue cheese, with various dressings possible.

– Chicago-style “garbage”: bulgur, romaine and iceberg lettuces, cucumber, radish, red bell pepper (fire-roasted or raw), celery, cherry tomato, red onion, provolone cheese, salami, cooked chickpeas, kalamata olive, garlic crouton, grated parmesan cheese, with various dressings possible.

Reach Bill St. John at [email protected]

About the author

For more than 40 years, Bill St. John’s specialties have been as varied as they are cultured. He writes and teaches about restaurants, wine, food & wine, the history of the cuisines of several countries (France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, and the USA), about religion and its nexus with food, culture, history, or philosophy, and on books, travel, food writing, op-ed, and language.

Bill has lent (and lends) his subject matter expertise to such outlets as The Rocky Mountain News, The Denver Post, The Chicago Tribune, 5280 Magazine, and for various entities such as food markets, wine shops, schools & hospitals, and, for its brief life, Microsoft’s In 2001 he was nominated for a James Beard Award in Journalism for his 12 years of writing for Wine & Spirits Magazine.

Bill's experience also includes teaching at Regis University and the University of Chicago and in classrooms of his own devising; working as on-air talent with Denver's KCNC-TV, where he scripted and presented a travel & lifestyle program called "Wine at 45"; a one-week stint as a Trappist monk; and offering his shoulder as a headrest for Julia Child for 20 minutes.

Bill has also visited 54 countries, 42 of the United States, and all 10 Canadian provinces.