Some foods are just beautiful: just think at a fresh glistening strawberry or a perfectly cooked duck breast, still pink and juicy in the middle. They just want to be eaten. Other foods aren't so lucky. Even the most rare and expensive food can be ugly. Have you ever seen a truffle? Looks just like an oversized piece of goat's droppings.
In the past weeks I cooked a few recipes with one ingredient that IMO wins the title as most unappetising (as far as looks go) carb to land on a plate, till a better candidate shows up, but which nonetheless tastes nice: bulgur. Bulgur is cooked wheat berries that have been dried out again and then broken up into irregular pieces. It is a Middle-Eastern ingredient and it's most famously used to make pilafs and tabbouleh. Raw, it looks exactly like what it is, pieces of cracked wheat berries. But once it's cooked it shows it's real face. Bulghur suddenly looks like something your dog chewed and then spit out again. Luckily it's taste doesn't have the same canine association: cooked bulgur actually tastes nice and adds a certain nutty aroma to the dishes it is used in.
My bulgur experimenting didn't include tabbouleh, which I'll keep for warmer weathers. I tried instead a few different pilafs; vegetarian, with chicken and with lamb. This last one, from Paula Wolfert's The Slow Mediterranean Cook was by far the most delicious ones. It's called Lazy Lady Bulgur Pilaf, a name I immediately felt attracted to. Lazy? count me in. The recipe is from Filiz Hösukoglu, Wolfert's Turkish translator, and the introducing text in the book explains the name. The pilaf "sauce" in this dish, a slightly spicy mix of ground lamb and nuts, is normally used as filling for a Turkish dumpling, icli kofte. Normally Hösukoglu's neighbours would help with the moulding but one one occasion no one had time so the stuffing was used in a bulgur pilaf and so the dish was born. I served,as suggested, with cucumber-yogurt salad (aka Tsatsiki, in Greek). It makes a nice combination, the cool salad refreshing the mouth after the spicy pilaf. Compared to other bulgur recipes it even looks quite pretty: the green pistachios shine like gems on the red pilaf. You almost forget the "chewed up" appearance of bulgur.
Lazy Lady bulgur pilaf
250 g (1/2 pound) ground lamb
2 Tbs olive oil
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 cup chopped onion
1/3 cup peeled pistachios
1/4 cup chopped walnuts
1 teaspoon red pepper (Aleppo or Turkish to stay true to the recipe)
1/2 tsp ground black pepper
pinch of ground allspice
1/2 Tbsp tomato paste
1/2 Tbsp Turkish red pepper paste
1 cup large-grain bulgur
1 Tbsp clarified butter
Notes: I used normal butter and, by mistake; ground cumin instead of allspice. The Turkish red pepper paste is relatively easy to find here in Germany: possible substitute could be hot Ajvar sauce.
Heat oil in a large pot. Add lamb and 1/2 tsp salt and brown the meat till it starts to exude its own juices. Add the onion and on a medium low flame kook until the liquid is absorbed and meat and onions start to sizzle. Mix in pistachios, walnuts, red pepper, black pepper and allspice. Remove to a side dish.
Without washing the pot place 2 1/2 cups water into it and bring to boil. Wolfert says 1 1/2 cups are enough but that's not enough to cook the bulgur I have. Once the water boils add remaining salt, tomato and pepper pastes. Add bulgur, stir and bring to boil again. Let cook, covered, over medium-low heat about 15 minutes, till the bulgur is tender.
Make a wll in the bulgur and fill with the lamb mixture. Scoop some bulgur and cover the lamb filling. Rest 15 minutes, till the bulgur has absorbed all the moisture. Serve with cucumber-yogurt salad.