Bulgur: quick, tasty, versatile and whole grain

Do the long cooking times for whole grains put you off from serving them?  Try bulgur.  It’s the one whole grain that cooks up in about 15 minutes.  Actually it’s not “whole” in the sense that the wheat berries are intact.  Bulgur is made by parboiling wheat grains and then cracking them after they dry.  The resulting grains are whole in the sense that all of the fiber and nutrients are retained.  So a “whole grain” that’s actually cracked.

I first discovered bulgur wheat many years ago when someone introduced me to tabbouleh.  Tabbouleh is a tangy and refreshing hot weather salad made with bulgur, cucumbers, tomatoes, lemon juice, olive oil and mint.  It’s a traditional Middle Eastern/Greek dish, and there are probably as many recipes as there are cooks.  Cook the bulgur first (I don’t)?  Add other seasonings like cumin or parsley (I don’t), use more or less tomatoes or cucumbers (more) and so forth.*  It’s a delightful summer salad, and works well for a vegetarian or vegan meal, especially when combined with a high protein side dish like tzatziki or hummus.

Nutritionally cooked bulgur stands out for fiber and minerals.  Significant nutrients for one cup cooked:

  • 150 calories
  • 5.6 grams protein
  • less than 1/2 gram fat
  • 8.2 grams fiber (!)
  • 1.75 mg iron
  • 1 mg zinc
  • 58 mg magnesium

Thanks to the fiber, bulgur is filling, which cuts calorie intake.

Bulgur is versatile, and one dish I also really like is a variation on a traditional Indian breakfast dish: upma.  Upma is a porridge-like savory dish, and again there are probably as many recipes as there are cooks.  Most recipes call for rava, which is similar to cream of wheat cereal.  Using bulgur gives the upma a more hearty flavor, as well as more nutritional value.  This recipe is an adaptation from one in “Laurel’s Kitchen“, a vegetarian cookbook first published in the mid-1970’s.  That recipe calls for cracked wheat, which is not exactly the same as bulgur, and takes longer to cook.  Try savory upma (or uppuma) as an alternative to sweetened oatmeal for breakfast, or as part of a vegetarian/vegan dinner.

Bulgur Upma

makes about 5 cups

  • 2 cups bulgur
  • 4 cups water
  • 1 green pepper, chopped
  • 1 onion, minced
  • 2 carrots, peeled and sliced thin
  • 2 TB canola or peanut oil
  • 1 tsp black mustard seeds (optional. You can find these at speciality food stores. I recommend using them, even if hard to find)
  • 1/4 tsp tumeric
  • 1/2 – 1 tsp dried ginger
  • 1 cup lightly toasted unsalted cashew pieces
  • 1/2 cup raisins
  • 1 tsp salt
  • juice of 1 lemon
  • optional: 1/4 cup minced cilantro

Heat the oil is a heavy 2 qt pot.  Add mustard seeds, if using, and saute briefly until they ‘pop’ and turn gray.  Add the onion, pepper and carrots and saute on medium heat until just browned.  Add the dry bulgur and stir constantly to toast the kernels slightly.  Pour in the water, add the tumeric and ginger, cover and bring to a simmer.  Cook 12-15 minutes until the bulgur is cooked and water absorbed.  Add salt, raisins, cashews, cilantro (if using) and lemon juice and fluff with a fork to combine everything.  Garnish with plain yogurt if you like.

*My tabbouleh recipe is included in my book “Feed Your Vegetarian Teen“.  I soak the bulgur overnight with the chopped salted cucumbers and tomatoes and a small amount of added water, in a covered bowl.  The bulgur absorbs the liquid from the vegetables, adding extra flavor.

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