You may know tabbouleh (a.k.a. tabouli or tabouleh), that delicious Middle-Eastern salad of cracked wheat with tomatoes, cucumber, and a pile of green herbs. But have you tried lentil-enriched tabbouleh? If not, here’s your chance. 🙂
While adding lentils to tabbouleh may seem odd, combining grains and legumes is a common practice in many cultures, and there are several good reasons for doing so:
- Complementary amino acid profiles: Grains and legumes both provide protein, but they have different amino acid profiles. Legumes are typically lower in certain essential amino acids such as methionine, while grains are lower in lysine. By combining the two, you create a more balanced and complete protein source. This is particularly important for individuals following veg(etari)an diets, as it helps ensure they obtain all the essential amino acids necessary for optimal health.
- Enhanced nutrient absorption: Legumes, like beans and lentils, contain compounds called phytates, which can inhibit the absorption of certain minerals like zinc, iron, and calcium. Many grains, on the other hand, contain phytase, an enzyme that helps break down phytates. Wheat, rye, barley, and buckwheat have considerable amounts of phytase, whereas corn, oats, sorghum, rice, and millet have little or no phytase activity. When grains and legumes are consumed together, the phytase in the grains can aid in reducing the impact of phytates on mineral absorption, thereby enhancing overall nutrient availability.
- Sustained energy release: Combining grains and legumes can result in a more balanced and sustained release of energy. Grains are generally higher in carbohydrates, while legumes provide relatively more protein and fiber that can help to slow down the digestion and absorption of carbohydrates, preventing rapid spikes in blood sugar levels. This steady release of energy can provide longer-lasting fuel and promote greater satiety.
- Dietary diversity, texture, and flavor: Combining grains and legumes adds variety to your diet and expands the range of flavors, textures, and nutrients you consume. This can make meals more interesting and enjoyable, and provide a wider spectrum of essential nutrients.
Here are a few examples of dishes from cuisines around the world that combine legumes and grains:
- Rice and Beans: This classic combination is a staple in Latin American cuisine. It typically involves cooking rice and beans together, seasoned with various spices and herbs. Variations include Cuban black beans and rice, Mexican red beans and rice, and Brazilian feijoada.
- Mujaddara: Mujaddara is a popular Middle Eastern dish made with cooked lentils and bulgur or rice. (I have included a mujaddara recipe in my book, Zest for Life: The Mediterranean Anti-Cancer Diet.) It is flavored with caramelized onions and spices like cumin and cinnamon, creating a delicious and aromatic dish.
- Chana Masala with Rice: Chana masala is a flavorful Indian dish made with chickpeas cooked in a spiced tomato-based sauce. It is commonly served with basmati rice or accompanied by flatbreads like naan or roti.
- Lentil Soup with Barley: Lentil soup with barley is a hearty and nutritious dish found in many European cuisines. It combines lentils and barley, along with vegetables, herbs, and sometimes meat or sausage, resulting in a filling and comforting soup.
- Falafel: Falafel is a popular Middle Eastern dish made from ground chickpeas or fava beans mixed with herbs, spices, and onions. The mixture is formed into balls or patties, deep-fried or baked, and often served in pita bread with tahini sauce, salad, and pickles.
- Dal Bhat: Dal bhat is a traditional dish in Nepal and parts of India. It consists of lentil soup (dal) served with steamed rice (bhat) and is often accompanied by various side dishes such as vegetable curries, pickles, and yogurt.
While delicious, nutritious, and providing all EAAs, these types of dishes nonetheless tend to be relatively low in protein and high in carbohydrates. They are thus best suited to metabolically healthy, physically active folks. If you are someone who struggles to maintain stable glucose levels or has insulin resistance, you might want to eat moderate servings of such dishes and opt for the least-glycemic carbohydrate component (e.g., brown rice rather than white, sourdough bread rather than white bread).
As you’ll see in the nutrition information panel below the recipe, this salad, which is packed with vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, healthy fats, fiber, etc., doesn’t supply much protein (a mere 8 g per serving). To boost your protein intake, I recommend you serve it with eggs, yogurt, cheese, fish, or meat (see meat recipes here and fish recipes here).
Lentil & Bulgur Tabbouleh
- ½ cup coarsely ground bulgur wheat I used Bob's Red Mill Red Bulgur
- ½ cup just-boiled water
- ⅔ cup lentils preferably firm-cooking, nutty lentils like dark-green Puy lentils or black "beluga" lentils; green lentils get too soft and make for a "wet" salad; if you have no time to cook your own lentils, use pre-cooked ones like Trader Joe's steamed & vacuum-packed Puy Lentils
- 2 bay leaves
- 3 cloves garlic
- 3 tbsp lemon juice freshly pressed
- 1 large shallot peeled & finely diced
- ¾ tsp salt
- ½ tsp black pepper freshly ground
- 1 tsp ras el hanout Moroccan spice mix (for instance, this brand); alternatively, use 1 tsp ground cumin
- 3 tbsp olive oil
- 10 oz grape tomatoes quartered
- 1 medium English cucumber unpeeled, halved lengthwise, seeds scraped out with a teaspoon, flesh cut into ½-inch cubes
- 1 cup parsley finely chopped
- ½ cup mint finely chopped
- Place the bulgur grain in a small bowl. Pour over the just-boiled water and a pinch of salt. Cover and set aside for 45 minutes to 1 hour until all the water has been absorbed.
- Next, place the lentils in a small pot and cover with 2½ cups of water. Add bay leaves and 1 clove of garlic and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Once boiling, reduce heat to a simmer and cover. Cook until the lentils are al dente, about 20-25 minutes.
- In a large mixing bowl, combine lemon juice, the 2 remaining cloves of garlic (finely minced), the chopped shallot, salt, and pepper and let sit for 10 minutes (this takes the sharp edge off the garlic). Add ras el hanout or cumin and whisk in the olive oil using a wire whisk.
- Once the lentils are soft, drain them in a fine-meshed sieve and rinse them with cold water to cool them down. If there's time, refrigerate until they are fully chilled.
- Just before serving, add the chopped tomatoes and cucumbers to the bowl; use a spatula to combine the vegetables with the dressing. Fold in the bulgur and lentils and toss gently to combine. Finally, fold in the chopped herbs. Cover and refrigerate for 15-30 minutes. Season to taste with salt, pepper & lemon juice; serve.
- This salad is best eaten immediately and doesn't keep well. However, you can prep all the vegetables, herbs, lentils, and bulgur in advance, chill them well and then dress them at short notice.