Gypsy Kitchens: Bosnian Bulgur Pilaf, Freshened Up a Bit

The original plan was to try our hands at traditional Bosnian Red Pilaf, a simple staple which can be served hot or cold. It is similar to Turkish bulgur pilavi, in that the main components are coarse bulgur, tomato and pepper.  What we liked about the Bosnian recipe is that fresh tomato was employed instead of tomato paste, and that onion, carrots and celery root were included. The tomatoes we purchased at the market in Mostar changed our plans a little.  When the first one we sliced open practically hemorrhaged juice, we had a pang of remorse about our intentions to heat them up and cook them down.   Sometimes, wonderful produce just begs you to eat it raw. This set into motion our freshened up version of bulgur pilaf, a play on the Bosnian classic that keeps things a little brighter and more summery.
Bulgur is a wonderful, high-protein whole grain with a nutty flavor and great texture.  It is quicker to cook than rice and healthier than couscous.  So, what's not to love?  The reason we chose bulgur instead of rice, which is also commonly used in Bosnian red pilaf, is the snappiness of the texture and the earthiness of the flavor really appeal to us.  It also does much better sitting in a fridge without drying out, which is essential when you're cooking for two but making enough for six.  We're not great at cooking in small amounts. When, at our very first meal out in Bosnia and Herzegovina, these cracked, parboiled and dried wheatberries made not one but two appearances  - beneath a hot starter of Šampinjoni na žaru (grilled mushrooms) and floating in a big bowl of paradajz čorba (tomato soup) - we knew we'd chosen the right grain.
What makes bulgur pilaf different than just cooked bulgur is that ingredients are sauteed right in the pot before the cooking liquid is added, which means that the grains wind up soaking up all of those great flavors. We softened diced onion, minced garlic and a healthy dose of red pepper flakes in oil to start.  When those were done, we added salt, sliced carrot and water and then upped the heat to bring to a rolling boil before throwing in our bulgur. Many people saute their grain for a minute before adding the liquid. It's a personal choice.   Pilaf is traditionally made with broth instead of water, but we wanted to keep our recipe vegetarian.  We also wanted to utilize Bosnia and Herzegovina's legendary water, which - when you really think about it - is just mountain broth.  Right?  Not using broth is probably blasphemous to pilaf purists, but we were happy with the amount of flavor in our sauteed ingredients.
This was our first time cooking bulgur ourselves and it was amazing to see the coarse flecks of wheat expand and fluff before our eyes.  We'd say it grows to at least twice maybe thrice its dry size when cooked.  Like couscous, it's pretty difficult to screw this grain up.  Just find what works for you and the particular brand of bulgur you've purchased.  Generally speaking, cooking bulgur entails a 2:1 liquid to grain ration and about 15 minutes of your time.   Some people cover, remove from heat and let sit for 20 minutes.  We left our pot uncovered and simmered for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.   As long as the heat is low enough, there's no threat of burning. Just slide a wooden spoon down the side of your pot and push the grains away from the edge to check the amount of liquid left on the bottom.  Once there's none to be seen, you're all set.  To speed up the cooling process, we transferred our bulgur to a bowl right away.
Then, we prepped our raw ingredients.  Leaving the tomato uncooked gave us the idea to do the same with our celery root, that way we could utilize its crunch along with its flavor.  We've found that celeriac and celery are a little like Clark Kent and Superman.  We have yet to see them both sold in the same place.  In fact, we began buying celeriac when we discovered that celery stalks are almost impossible to find in Europe.  The reverse seems to be true in most supermarkets in the US.  In our time on this continent, we've come to love this knobby low-starch root vegetable, which has the same smooth flavor as celery, but a much longer shelf life.  Pushing our cold pilaf even closer to 'salad,' we chopped up loads of parsley and cubed some locally smoked cow cheese we had in the fridge.  The smokiness wound up being one of the things we loved most about our finished product.  A smoked gouda would do the trick or a smoked, firm tofu if you'd like to make the recipe vegan.
Sometimes it's difficult to know when to stop adding ingredients.  However, it's hard to argue with seeds and lemon juice.  We sprinkled roasted pumpkin seeds throughout while folding our ingredients into the bulgur, being especially careful not to wound the diced and seeded tomato too much.  Then, we squeezed half a lemon over the top and mixed once more.  We didn't wind up dressing with olive oil, though a drizzle on each plate before serving would work well.  Storing without added oil, as well as choosing to seed the tomato, really kept the pilaf fluffy and moist without putting it in danger of getting soggy.  This is a dish you can definitely prepare the night before or make a huge batch of on Sunday and enjoy throughout the week.
Bosnian Bulgur Pilaf, Freshened Up a Bit
(serves 2 as a main course or 4 - 6 as a side dish)
- 1 1/2 cups bulgur
- 3 cups water
- 1 small yellow onion, diced
- 1 large clove garlic, minced
- 1 large carrot, halved and sliced
- 3/4 cup celeriac, match-sticked
- 1/2 lemon 
- 1/2 cup cubed smoked gouda (or smoked, firm tofu)
- 2 medium tomatoes, seeded and diced
- pumpkin seeds, hulled
- bunch of fresh flat parsley
- red chili flakes
- olive oil
- salt

- Heat olive oil in a medium pot.  Add onion and a healthy pinch of red chili flakes.
- Cook until softened and then add garlic.  Continue to cook until onion is browned.
- Add carrot and water.  Bring to a rolling boil.
- Pour in bulgur and mix.  Lower heat to a simmer.
- Simmer uncovered,  stirring occasionally,  for 10 minutes or until liquid is gone.  
-  Remove from heat and let sit for a few minutes.  Then, transfer to another container to speed up the cooling process.
- While grains cool, dice tomatoes, discarding the liquid and seeds.
- Skin and matchstick celeriac, chop parsley and cube cheese.
- Fold all ingredients into bulgur once it is no longer hot.  Salt.  Sprinkle liberally with pumpkin seeds and mix again.
- Dress with half a lemon and either serve or refrigerate.  This is a dish that can be made the night before if you'd like.
- Drizzle lightly with olive oil before serving (optional). 
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