This has been one loooong winter for the United States, and it's been a freezing, incredibly snowy one for those of us in the Northeast. I've been cooking lots of soups, and will continue to do so, and to enjoy their warming comfort until I can no longer stand to ladle a spoon of hot broth to my lips (a word to Mother Nature: that day is coming soon!) And I love my seasonal winter foods and comfort meals -- stews, roasted meats, root veggies, a nice afternoon tea with accompanying biscuits. But to brighten up my winter repertoire, a seasonal mid-winter grain salad is just the thing to give my palate a much-needed lift.
To start: pick a grain. I chose bulgur wheat here, as it's inexpensive, nutritionally sound, and one of the many bags of grains I had on hand in my pantry. Bulgur wheat has already been parboiled and dried when we purchase it, so technically it doesn't need to be boiled again to be reconstituted. But one excellent trick I've learned over the years, to add flavor and zing to this grain and eventually the dishes in which it ends up, is to cook the bulgur in a juice that will add flavor and color to the grain when it's cooked. Here I use a beet-carrot-green apple-lemon freshly pressed juice to give the wheat character and a bright color, not to mention added nutritional value as the grain absorbs the juice.
A second element that makes this salad soar is its use of various textures. The grain itself is nutty, chewy. Most grains are. I add crunch with a small dice of celery and green apple. Ditto the pomegranate arils. A softness comes from the roasted cubed butternut squash. The third element is flavor. There's a great interplay between nutty (the grain) and vegetal (celery, parsley), sweet (the squash) and sour (pomegranate, apple). The vinaigrette, which contains rice vinegar as well as lemon juice, brightens everything with an acidic kick. The beauty is that the elements can be substituted and played with, according to what's on hand and what's in season -- and of course, what you like.
I often add some red onion chopped finely, or shallot. I also sometimes add nuts for additional crunch, like pine nuts or chopped pecans, hazelnuts, almonds, pistachios, or walnuts. And in spring and summer I add seasonal veggies and fruits, swapping out the butternut squash for zucchini or asparagus or cherry tomatoes, the pomegranate for summer berries or stone fruit. Parsley can be substituted by abundant summer basil, and so on. And the vinaigrette can be played with, so instead of rice vinegar, use white balsamic, or raspberry vinegar, or sherry vinegar. Use avocado oil, or try pumpkin seed oil with pumpkin seeds as the nut in the salad. Use your imagination! And enjoy a healthy grain salad, mid-winter or any time.
MID-WINTER BULGUR WHEAT SALAD
1 cup bulgur wheat
2 1/2 cups beet-carrot-apple-lemon juice
1 butternut squash, peeled and cubed into 1/2-inch dice
1 green apple, chopped into 1/4-inch dice
1/2 cup pomegranate arils
1/2 cup celery, chopped into 1/4-inch dice
1/2 bunch flat-leaf parsley, chopped
1/8 cup rice vinegar
1 TBSP. dijon mustard
2 TBSP. ponzu
1 TSP. lemon juice
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
- Preheat an oven to 375 degrees F. Place the diced butternut squash on a baking sheet, sprinkle with salt and drizzle with olive oil, and toss with hands to coat evenly.
- Roast the butternut squash in the oven, tossing occasionally to cook evenly, until browned and starting to caramelize on the outside, about 30-45 minutes depending on the power of your oven. Set aside to cool.
- In a pot, bring the bulgur wheat and juice to a boil and cook covered until fully absorbed, about 8 minutes.Dump in a bowl and set aside to cool.
- Whisk together rice vinegar, dijon, ponzu, lemon juice, and salt and pepper. In a slow stream, add the oil and whisk to emulsify. This is your vinaigrette.
- Once the bulgur and butternut squash cool, mix together in a bowl with the celery, pomegranate, green apple, and parsley. Toss to mix.
- Drizzle the vinaigrette on top and toss again to mix.
*This salad is delicious right away, but as it sits in its dressing, the flavor improves, making it another example of a dish that gets better with age.