Summer is a time when it almost seems a shame to use dried fruit in cooking, since the fresh variety is so bountiful. The rich, treacly taste and sticky texture of dried fruit has its place, but for me that place is in a comforting winter stew or tagine, or to pep up an autumnal salad of grains, nuts and perhaps a crumbling of soft cheese. Right now I’d much rather enjoy the crisp, sweet flesh and gentle bloom of an early-season Victoria plum, the voluptuous curve of a fresh fig or the mouth-puckering tang of a sun-ripened berry or currant than the caramelised, winey flavours of their dried counterparts.
The same goes for apricots. The other day I found myself in the market, looking for the ingredients to make a dried apricot and pistachio tabbouleh to accompany a roast cauliflower shawarma. The two dishes work wonderfully together; the crunchy bulgur wheat with its light dressing of orange and lemon juice, olive oil and plentiful herbs soaks up the glorious tahini sauce of the shawarma (I use a recipe from the Honey & Co. cookbook). Studded with juicy, tart pieces of dried apricot, it’s perfect against the rich flavour of the slow-cooked cauliflower. But my eyes landed upon a tray of perfectly peachy, blushing fresh apricots on the market stall, and plans changed.
This is not really a tabbouleh; there is no bulgur wheat and nowhere near the requisite quantity of parsley. Instead, I’ve used wholegrain giant couscous, which I love for its nutty flavour and big, toothsome grains. However, this has the same sort of feel as that deservedly famous Middle Eastern salad: wholesome grains, the crunch of cucumber (deseeded, so it’s not watery), the fragrance of grassy fresh parsley and mint, and a good glug of olive oil to dress the lot. It’s brightened with lemon zest and juice, and finally tossed with slivers of ripe, golden apricot. I would have liked to briefly grill or blowtorch the apricot pieces before I added them to the salad, to bring out their sweet-tart flavour, but guests arrived before this could be put into action.
This is a lovely balance of crunch, nuttiness and sweetness, and a beautiful side dish full of interesting colours and textures. It works well next to a cauliflower shawarma, like its dried fruit version, but it’s also excellent as a main course with some crumbled feta, goat’s cheese or grilled halloumi. It would be good as a side dish as part of a Middle Eastern mezze-style meal, perhaps with lamb or chicken. If you can’t get good ripe apricots, peach slivers would work fabulously too, or even plums in the autumn.
Giant couscous ‘tabbouleh’ with fresh apricots (serves 6-8 as a side):
- 200g wholegrain giant couscous (available from Waitrose, online or good delis)
- 1 cucumber
- 500g fresh apricots
- A large bunch of fresh parsley
- A small bunch of fresh mint, leaves picked
- Zest of 2 lemons
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 3 tbsp good olive oil
- Salt and pepper
Bring a large pan of water to the boil and add the couscous. Cook for 6-7 minutes or until al dente. Drain well and set aside.
Slice the cucumber in half lengthways and scrape out the seeds with a teaspoon; discard them. Chop the cucumber into 1cm dice and place in a large mixing bowl. Halve and stone the apricots, then chop into thick slivers. Add to the bowl. Finely chop the parsley and mint and add to the bowl along with the lemon zest.
Add the couscous to the mixing bowl along with the lemon juice and olive oil. Season with salt and pepper and toss well to mix. Serve.