Simple! Sensible! Sensational!®

August 2003
© 2003 by Bret S. Beall

This month, I needed to pull some dishes together to bring to a potluck at the Organic Food Network where I was speaking/leading a discussion on the science of cooking and the art of dining (touching on sensory psychology, satiation, and the biological pros and cons of “raw food”). I needed something vegetarian and/or vegan, and I wanted to avoid anything requiring much cooking (that does NOT mean I promote this so-called “living foods” movement), so I decided on a trio of mezze (Middle Eastern appetizers): hummus, baba ghanouj and tabbouleh. If you want to serve these dishes at home, add the “Mediterranean mix” to the table, and maybe even one of the versions of tomato salad at the bottom of this column (not to mention one of the cucumber and yogurt salads presented in July’s Simple! Sensible! Sensational!® column).


Way back in March, when I was on a legume kick, I presented my recipe for hummus, that garlicky chickpea and tahini mixture. Please visit that link, as I have nothing to add unless you want to replace the raw garlic with the same or up to double the amount of roasted garlic. This is also a great time of year to roast a bunch of red peppers and either garnish the hummus with slices of roasted red peppers, or chop them and stir them into the hummus (one large red pepper will yield about ½ c chopped roasted red pepper, which is what you need for one batch of hummus).


I adapted a recipe by Claudia Rodin (1968. A Book of Middle Eastern Food. Vintage Books: New York. 453 pp.) to create this simple, straightforward, flavor-packed salad/dip.

Halve eggplant; wipe cut surface with olive oil; place on oven-proof surface and bake cut surface down at 350 degrees F for one hour. Remove and allow to cool to handle. Gently remove eggplant pulp from skin and coarsely dice pulp. Place pulp in bowl, add remaining ingredients, and stir with a spoon until ingredients are thoroughly combined. Serve chilled or at room temperature as a dip or side dish.

There are many variations of this recipe. Feel free to alter the basic proportions to your taste. If you have a grill and are cooking other ingredients, the eggplant is more traditionally cooked over an open flame for this recipe (I have roasted a whole [uncut] eggplant over the flame of my gas stove burner with great success [and smokiness in both the eggplant and the room!]). The recipe can be accompanied with chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, and/or olives. Additional olive oil can be drizzled on top of the finished dish. The basic mixture can also be frozen for later use.

This sort of eggplant puree has also been variously adapted as “Eggplant Caviar” by adding chopped onion, minced celery, and a host of other ingredients and herbs. However, it all started with Baba Ghanouj. Here are some examples:

Minty Baba Ghanouj: This version is identical to the traditional baba ghanouj, except replace the parsley with 2-4 T fresh mint.

Southwestern Baba Ghanouj: This version is also identical to traditional baba ghanouj, except omit the tahini, replace the lemon juice with an equal amount of lime juice, and replace the parsley with ½ cup of cilantro, chopped and somewhat tightly packed. Optionally, you may add ¼ t to ½ t of your favorite chile powder (chipotle powder is particularly good). Serve with tortilla chips or crusty bread slices.


I tend to think of Claudia Rodin as THE authority on Middle Eastern cuisine. I have adapted her tabbouleh recipe from A Book of Middle Eastern Food (1968. Vintage Books: New York. 453 pp.). I altered the proportions to both turn this into more of a “parsley salad” (as recommended by food writer David Rosengarten) and to enhance and balance the flavors. I’m sure you’ll enjoy this version.

Place the bulgur in a heatproof bowl, and add the boiling water; stir to moisten all grains, and cover for about 15 minutes. Stir again, and cover for another 15 minutes. Drain off any residual water (note: the interiors of each grain should still be firm; they will soften with the addition of other moist ingredients, and absorb their flavors). Add the remaining ingredients and stir gently until combined well. Taste and adjust the salt if needed. Cover and chill for at least 30 minutes. Serve alone, with other dishes, or with some cured black olives or sliced cucumbers.


Rice Salad: A tasty way to use leftover white, brown and/or wild rice is to replace the soaked bulgur with about 2 c of cooked rice.

Orzo Salad: Although there are many ways to make “pasta salad,” including “pasta salad with vinaigrette,” I present the option of substituting about 2 c of cooked rice-shaped orzo pasta (about 1 c prior to cooking in boiling, salted water) for the bulgur. You can try using other pastas, but the other ingredients will need adjustment.


This is really not so much a recipe as it is a presentation. I love this sort of thing for lunch, but it is also a terrific way to start a meal or as a buffet item at a party. Think of it as a selection of antipasti, arranged neatly and attractively on a large platter (preferably white, to show off the beautiful innate colors of the ingredients), with or without a bed of lettuce. There is no “wrong” way to do this, so just do it and enjoy.

Olives (black, green, dried, in oil or brine, marinated or not)

Roasted peppers (red peppers are traditional, but any color of bell pepper can be roasted, as can any chile, with jalapenos and poblanos being the least fiery); roasted peppers can be purchased in bottled form (they really don’t taste much like home-roasted), or you can roast a pile o’ peppers when you have some time, but clean them well and cut them into small pieces (2” square, or so), and freeze them in plastic dishes with a film of olive oil separating each layer of peppers; when you thaw them, save the olive oil with pepper juice for a fantastic salad dressing)

Salami and/or other meat(s), such as prosciutto (domestic or imported), serrano ham, even good quality bologna

Canned fish are a great addition to this combination: sardines (in oil, mustard sauce, or other permutation), tuna (any type, remembering that “Light Tuna in Water” will have the fewest categories, and you can always drizzle your own flavorful extra virgin olive oil over the top), anchovies (if you are adding them to this platter, please rinse them first)

Cheese: preferably, you will get some sort of artisanal cheese rather than one of those mass-produced bricks (I use these bricks for other recipes, but not where the cheese needs to stand on its own). For cheese-munching of this variety, I like a variety of goat cheeses, bleu cheeses and double/triple creams. Go for quality, not quantity in this instance!

Breads: baguettes or any other substantial bread, sliced thinly (the bread can be room temperature, or warm; I place the slices in a microwaveable bowl lined with a cloth napkin or towel, fold the corners over the bread, and microwave for 30 seconds; voila! Warm bread!); crackers are another good addition, as are pita triangles (cut pita bread into quarters, but do not separate the halves; these can be warmed like the sliced bread, if desired).


During the short tomato season, I cannot get enough of these delicious fruits (yes, botanically they are fruits). I could write an entire column on tomatoes (for example, suggesting you add some sliced or quartered tomatoes to the Mediterranean Mix presentation above), but I’ll return to these delights next month. This month, I wanted to point out how understanding botany can be helpful in cooking. Tomatoes and basil are a classic combination, so I started thinking about what else would work well. By visiting the same botanical family as basil, Lamiaceae (or Labiatae, depending on whom you ask, and whether they recognize that this family is paraphyletic with the Verbenaceae), I encountered mint (I also encountered rosemary and thyme, but they’ll have to wait until next month). Mint of all kinds is fabulous with tomatoes, and I devised the following salad ideas to highlight this marriage.

Per serving:

Combine ingredients and serve as a first course, or with some mesclun in a vinaigrette for a light lunch.


Pasta Sauce: Spoon the mixture over your favorite poached or pan-seared meat, fish or poultry, or atop ¼ lb freshly cooked pasta with some grated cheese (if desired). Serve with one of the salads presented in June’s and July’s Simple! Sensible! Sensational!® recipes.

Salad Variation I: Slice the tomatoes (consider using red and yellow, or some of the mottled heirloom varieties), and spread them on a plate attractively, and douse with the ingredients.

Salad Variation II (aka Pseudo-Insalata Caprese): Insalata Caprese is made by alternating sliced red tomatoes, fresh mozzarella (preferably buffalo) and basil leaves (representing not only great flavor but also the colors of the Italian flag), but in this version, replace the basil with mint (and, by the way, instead of the mint in any of these recipes, you can use basil). As long as we are going “pseudo Caprese,” try using other varieties of cheese instead of the mozzarella … there are hundreds and thousands of variations!

Bruschetta: toast some bread rounds on the grill or in a super-heated skillet, then rub with a cut garlic clove around the margin, drizzle with some extra virgin olive oil, and top with the chopped tomato and mint mixture. Once again, tally the variations theoretically possible with the above recipes, and you’ve got several hundred thousand recipes (maybe millions?). Eat up!