When Anjuli and I get together in a kitchen it is like the improvisation that goes on between jazz musicians. She has an idea and it sparks me, I enhance on it, back and forth we go until, from these sparks, a dish is created. It just flows from mind to mind and heart to heart with no effort and no ego. It is quite amazing to me. I used to sing in the 60s with a partner. Sometimes we would hit a perfect note together. The feeling of the perfection of the note would make the hair stand up on the back of my neck. It had a life of its own. When Anjuli and I cook together sometimes we create a dish that feels like that. We can just feel that it is right.
This dish started from a telephone conversation between us the week before Thanksgiving:
Anj: let’s make something with my tagine; how about making something with grain?
We were both thinking Middle Eastern since the idea was to use a tagine. We thought of couscous or bulgur. We decided on bulgur which is a form of whole wheat that has been cleaned, parboiled, dried and ground. It comes in different grind sizes as well as whole kernel. It’s been a staple in the Middle East for thousands of years. It has a wonderful, nut like taste and slightly chewy texture. It is different from cracked wheat in that it has been cooked. If soaked in water or broth it can actually be used in salads without further cooking.
Bulgur and brown rice are comparable nutritionally in terms of protein and calcium, but bulgur is two and one half times higher in fiber with less calories. We decided to soak it over night with water, a little lemon juice and a sprig of rosemary. The acid in lemon juice helps to release locked nutrients in whole grain so our bodies can digest them. We often soak our whole grain in something slightly acidulated for that reason.
Anj: Now what to go with the bulgur? Onions? Leeks? Shallots?
Weezie: It’s Middle Eastern so dried fruit and mint? How about prunes?
The dialog flowed back and forth until we had the following list of ingredients.
What a lovely, hearty dish with a complex flavor, slightly sweet from the leeks and prunes, slightly salty, a little bite from the pepper and that wonderful flavor of mint combined with acid from the orange peel. It ranged from chewy to a satisfying crunch from the walnuts, a symphony of flavor and texture. We used it as a major side at our Thanksgiving celebration. It could also be used on any occasion as a main course or a side. It is very complete nutritionally. - Weezie
Bulgur with Peas and Mint, Leeks, Prunes, Walnuts and Orange Peel Serves 10 – 12
For soaking and cooking grain:
2 cups bulgur
8 cups water
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
3 inch sprig of fresh rosemary
1 1/2 cups chicken or turkey broth, homemade (1/2 cup used w/ bulgur and 1 cup with peas and mushrooms)
3 tablespoon fresh thyme, ground (to be divided and used below)
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, ground
2 tablespoons orange zest
For the prunes:
1 cup dried prunes, quartered
juice of 1 orange
For the mushrooms:
3 tablespoons good olive oil
4 cups shitake mushrooms, scrubbed with wet paper towels, stems removed, and cut in 1/2 inch strips
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
Freshly ground black pepper
For the nuts:
1 1/2 cups raw walnuts
For cooking the dish:
3 tablespoons ghee, preferably homemade
3 medium leeks, (1 1/2 cups) halved, cut in 1/4 inch crescents, then washed in a bowl of cold water and drained
2 small handfuls of dried mint leaves, crushed
1 tablespoon dried oregano
2 packages (2 lbs) of organic frozen peas, put in a colander until come to room temperature
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 cup red wine
Note: This dish was inspired from the idea to use Anjuli’s tagine. She actually forgot to bring it to Connecticut with the millions of other things she was already bringing for the holidays, so we made it in my dutch oven. But it would be wonderful and perhaps culturally more correct to make it in a tagine.
Soak the grain
We soaked 3 cups of bulgur not realizing that it swells to about 4 times its dry, pre-soaked volume. So we changed the recipe to 2 cups. Add the water to a large bowl along with the grain. Add the lemon juice and a sprig of rosemary to build flavor. Soak for 12 hours or overnight. Drain the bulgur.
Cook the grain
Add 1/2 cup of the broth to a medium sized saucepan. Stir in the drained bulgur, ground rosemary, orange zest, and 1 tablespoon of the thyme. Bring it to a boil and let it simmer about 5 minutes. Take off the heat, put a lid on it and set aside.
Soak the prunes
Soak the prunes in a small bowl with the orange juice and enough hot water to cover for one half hour.
Roast the Mushrooms
Preheat the oven to 350 F. On a cookie sheet toss the mushrooms with the olive oil, 1 tablespoon of minced thyme, salt, pepper, and the nutmeg. Roast for 20 minutes until the edges are brown. Toss the mushrooms twice during the roasting process. Remove from the oven and place on a paper towel. Let some of the oil drain then move to a bowl. Set aside.
Toast the Nuts
Turn the oven down to 325 F. Toast the nuts on a cookie sheet for 15 minutes until they change color slightly. Shake the pan once during toasting. Remove from the oven and cool on parchment paper. Once cool, break into pieces and set aside.
Cook the fruits, nuts, herbs and spices together
In a dutch oven or large heavy-bottom pan, melt the ghee on medium low. Add the leeks and saute until they soften, about 5 minutes. Add the mint, oregano, peas, mushrooms, black pepper, and salt. Saute for 1 minute. Add the wine and remaining 1 cup of broth and the prunes with their liquid. Bring to a boil and turn down the heat, put on a lid and let it simmer for 15 minutes. Remove the lid and cook off most remaining liquid on medium-high, about 3 minutes. Turn off the heat.
Assembly the dish
Add the nuts and bulgur. Toss lightly to combine with a large spoon, but don’t press or mash. Keep it covered until ready to serve. We served it directly from the dutch oven.