My brother has a good friend he met in medical school who came from a big, wonderful East coast Italian family. The Italian father ruled the roost not unlike my own: with a firmness that is known in our family to inspire “fear of father.” As in, “that kid needs a little fear of father in him, so he’ll straighten up.” One day at the family’s auto shop, this father’s voice could be heard ever so quietly over the loudspeaker, calling his son to attention. “Dominic,” he said quietly, then silence. “Dominic,” again in a hushed voice, followed by silence. Then at a fiercesome pitch: “DOMINIC, why three times?!”
Tabbouleh has taught me a lot about patience. It is one of those dishes that will taste just ok if the preparation is rushed, but will be splendid if you take your time to do the small but important tasks that make it great. It’s stunning to consider how this applies to a whole host of life experiences. If only I had in mind the wisdom of tabbouleh preparation at certain critical junctures, like dating (and…cringe…even marrying) the wrong guy. Whenever I have tapped into this lesson in patience, in taking one’s time without haste (I think often of that moment in Mass, when we pray for protection against “needless anxiety,” the kind that comes with making haste), the results have been not just ok, but splendid.
Parsley is the primary ingredient in tabbouleh, and it needs to be treated with TLC. I’ve made this salad with flat-leaf as well as with curly parsley and am convinced that the curly leaves result in a lighter salad with more body. Choose your parsley with awareness—no yellowing, and lots of nice curls.
Now here’s where the patience comes in. You’ve got to wash and dry that parsley really well. Clean it by dunking bunches in a big bowl of cold water in the sink and shaking it up in there. Pull the parsley back out, pour out the water and replace with new, and rinse it again. Then do it all again. Three times, making sure there is no grit in the last rinse water. The parsley from my garden looked clean, but then I washed it and learned otherwise. Be sure to pull the parsley from the water before pouring it out or you’ll just be dumping the dirt back onto the parsley along with the water you’re discarding.
Dry the parsley by shaking it out good in the sink and then gently wrapping it up like a child after his bath in a dry towel. You can spin it in a salad spinner if you have one, and if not let it air dry on the counter on a towel. Then bundle the parsley in a dry towel in a plastic bag and refrigerate, ideally overnight so it’s crisp and plump.
Pluck the parsley leaves from the stems, pinching all the way up against the leaves. No stems allowed! They will be bad news in your mouth. The leaves are then chopped finely with a sharp knife. (Maybe this will be the dish that gets you to take your knives in for sharpening; you will be amazed at the difference it makes in cooking.) I made tabbouleh once for friends back in Chicago and was in a hurry; I didn’t chop it finely enough, and it was like eating plate garnish. I noticed most of it was left on the plates, as garnish would be, after dinner. I’m going to disappoint you and say that it’s not ideal to chop parsley for tabbouleh in the food processor because it churns the herb into a wet mess. Tabbouleh is a lot of chopping, a labor of love. But if your parsley is bone dry and you are making enough for a Lebanese family reunion (which I don’t recommend), you’re going to go ahead with the food processor and care less about patience, perfection, and all that.
Tomorrow: Tabbouleh. A recipe.