By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
Many years ago, while en route to Vermont for a weekend getaway, my family and I discovered a hidden gem of a pit-stop – a Middle Eastern restaurant called Haji’s Place. For us, it was a wonderful introduction to (then-exotic) foods like hummus and baba ganoush, which were served in giant wooden bowls with lavash bread and – of course – tabbouleh.
Distinguished by its parsley “greens,” tabbouleh (or tabouli) is a refreshing vegetarian salad traditionally also made with tomatoes, onions, bulgur wheat, mint, olive oil, lemon juice and salt. At the time, I just thought it tasted great; but when I later became certified in nutrition, I started to appreciate what tabbouleh brings to the table healthwise.
The one thing that stood in the way of tabbouleh achieving super-dish status with me was the cracked wheat – I’m not a huge fan of grains and wheat, and like to eat gluten-free whenever I can. So, I was happy to discover that tabbouleh could taste just as good – even better – when made instead with quinoa, a healthier, gluten-free grain.
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Quinoa Tabbouleh Packs a Nutritional Punch
This quinoa tabbouleh recipe is a delicious way to get more colorful raw veggies and heart-healthy olive oil into your diet, and thus lots of health-protective plant nutrients (phytochemicals), fiber and monounsaturated fat.
Here’s a nutritional breakdown of tabbouleh ingredients:
Tabbouleh’s just about the only dish I’ve ever had where parsley is a main ingredient. Native to the Mediterranean, but now cultivated worldwide, parsley is probably best known here in the West as a colorful garnish. To me, this is a shame, given parsley’s nutrient-packed phytochemical profile –chlorophyll, flavonoids, and antioxidants like vitamin C, to name a few. It’s no wonder that other cultures have used the leaves and seeds of this herb medicinally for centuries. I try to add parsley (or cilantro, another favorite herb) to my salad greens, pasta dishes, meatballs, and soups whenever possible to maximize the nutritional benefits of my meals.
These vine fruits, which owe their vibrant red color to the powerful carotenoid lycopene, contain free radical fighting antioxidants that support heart health and healthy aging. Although you get more lycopene when you cook tomatoes, eating them raw gives you a little more water and vitamin C – it’s really a nutritional win, either way. Eating tomatoes with a healthy source of monounsaturated fat helps your body absorb the lycopene.
I love everything about olive oil —the way it tastes, the way it smells, the versatility of it, and – most importantly – the fact that olive oil also happens to be incredibly good for you. Olive oil is not just a terrific source of heart-healthy monounsaturated fat; it also contains some very special antioxidant compounds called polyphenols. In this recipe, I use a cold-pressed olive oil that is milled with fresh basil, which lends a sweet herbaceous note to the salad. Cold-pressed olive oil is the least processed of all the olive oil grades and will thus contain the highest amount of polyphenols.
Also an underappreciated source of nutrition, these modest allium bulbs contain many nutrients – vitamins, antioxidants, and sulfuric compounds that are great for heart health, most notably the powerful free-radical fighting antioxidant, quercetin. Eating them raw, as in this salad, maximizes the amount of healthy sulfur-containing compounds. Thankfully, parsley is a natural breath freshener!
While traditional tabbouleh recipes don’t call for cucumber, I like to add it for an extra nutrient and fiber boost. Offering potassium and vitamins K and C, as well as flavonoids and lignans (both are types of polyphenols), cucumber provides antioxidant support to protect the body against free radicals. Also full of water, cucumber is refreshing and low in calories, so it helps fill you up without expanding your waistline.
Full of antioxidant vitamin C and flavonoids, lemons provide immune support, not to mention give tabbouleh a tart citrusy flavor. Here’s more about why I love lemons.
Himalayan pink and sea salts
With its variety of fresh herbs, fruits and veggies, tabbouleh needs very little additional seasoning, hence just some fresh ground Himalayan or sea salt as a simple finishing touch. I like both Himalayan and sea salts because they offer a wide variety of trace minerals that aren’t found in regular table salt; Himalayan salt is said to contain all 84 minerals that the human body needs!
Often called a “pseudo-grain,” quinoa is really a seed that boasts higher protein content than bulgur wheat and other whole grains, as well as fiber, B-vitamins and minerals like magnesium and potassium. It is considered “a complete protein” because it contains all 20 amino acids, making it an ideal staple food for vegetarians and vegans. Quinoa’s protein, fat and fiber content help balance its carb content, as will the olive oil and fiber-rich veggies in this tabbouleh recipe – an important relationship when it comes to keeping blood sugar levels in a healthy zone.
In fact, choosing foods and food combinations that won’t spike your blood sugar is a primary aspect of my PAMM (Pan-Asian Modified Mediterranean) Diet. This, and it’s nutrient content, are why quinoa tabbouleh fits right in with the PAMM plan. (If you’d like to learn more about PAMM, check out this free ebook.)
As always, I recommend that you use organic ingredients whenever possible to avoid toxic herbicide residues that may linger on otherwise healthy veggies.
Ready to try what could become your new favorite meal?
Quinoa Tabbouleh Salad Recipe
- 4 cups cooked organic quinoa
- ½ cucumber, chopped
- 1 cup chopped tomatoes
- 1/3 cup chopped red onion
- 1 large clove garlic, minced
- 1 cup fresh chopped parsley
- 1/4 to 1/3 cup lemon juice
- 1/3 to ½ cup cold-pressed basil olive oil
- 3/8 tsp Himalayan or sea salt
- Fresh arugula or spinach
Cook quinoa according to package directions, then set aside to cool. Wash and chop all veggies and herbs, and combine together in a large bowl. Mix in the cooled quinoa. In a smaller, separate bowl, whisk together with a fork 1/4 cup of lemon juice and 1/3 cup of olive oil, until well blended. Taste and add more of either, to your liking. Pour dressing over quinoa, veggies and herbs, and mix well. Add sea salt, to taste. Serve immediately over a bed of arugula or spinach, or let marinate for an hour or more to let flavors meld.
One last note – traditional tabbouleh recipes call for fresh chopped mint. I personally prefer a fresh basil flavor, which is why I substituted my basil oil for the mint in my recipe. If you want to stick to the more traditional way of making tabbouleh, use regular extra virgin olive oil instead and add 2 Tbsp chopped mint to your recipe. Bon appétit!
© Stephen Sinatra, MD. All rights reserved.