As you probably already know Fear of Missing Out is a major player in our food-choosing dramas. There you are doing so well, perusing the menu like a pro and mindfully choosing the things that are just right for you in this moment when your loved one (who has worked out within an inch of his life that afternoon) orders the Mac ‘n’ Cheese or the Eton Mess and suddenly inside there is unseemly debate and uncertainty where previously there was calm and wisdom. (There may also be a re-evaluation of your loved-one but we’re not going there today.)
FOMO, the psychologists tell us, is an enormous factor in our decision-taking and you and I, who are trying to feed ourselves with love, need to get wise to this. And it isn’t only when people you thought of as friends suddenly give themselves carte absolutely blanche with the menu is it? What about when you know you’ll never be on this holiday again, in this country again, in this restaurant again? That can deal a death blow to the kind and reasonable intentions you had before you left the house, the hotel room or the villa. In the face of Baked Alaska or Zabaglione (and how often do you see those on a menu??) those intentions seem narrow, punitive, unimaginative and unnecessary. Before you can say ‘bring me an extra spoon’ you’ve wolfed down unforeseen goodies that you maybe haven’t enjoyed as much as you hoped. Whoops.
It seems to me that preparation is the best defence against raging FOMO. If you possibly can, (actually you always can) check out the menu online beforehand and imagine what you will order. If you’re on holiday, imagine what you will wear and how great you’ll look. Now and again I have to give myself a newsflash that there is in fact no world shortage of mac ‘n’ cheese. (A small personal weakness amongst, ahem, many.) Even burrata can today be found on several continents and does not have to be guzzled down right now in case it never appears again. (This is not 1982.) I can save it for a day when I was too busy to eat lunch or have done a bunch of exercise.
So what I wanted to offer you today in the way of summer food is a dish which can easily evoke FOMO in me because I love it and I don’t make it often. It is one of those dishes that is enormously more than the sum of its parts and the good news is that it is a balanced and delicious dish if you follow the recipe guidelines – main course for 4 or side dish for 8. This is my favourite ever salad – another from Diana Henry’s Crazy Water Pickled Lemons – not leaves this time but bulgur wheat, spinach and all kinds of good things. It goes brilliantly with BBQ food or roast chicken or the artichokes someone brought me from their garden and it can also stand up proudly as a meal in itself. The picture below in no way does it justice because I forgot to photograph it until we’d eaten most of it! Sorry about that! Lay it out on a large white platter for eight people and it looks impressive topped with the crispy onions which had all gone before I got my phone out. I love this dish because although it is brilliant in summer, it also has enough about it to transition into cold weather without leaving you feeling deprived. And deprived is what you never want to get near since it has the internal glutton kicking off quicker than any other feeling.
NB each of the component parts is made separately and can be used fabulously in other meals too
Bulgar and Spinach Pilaf with Labneh and Chilli Roast Tomatoes
Serves 4 as a main course or 8 as a side dish. The quantities are very approximate so don’t worry about them too much. You must make the labneh the day before but if it suits you the whole thing can be prepared the day before and assembled for eating when you’re ready.
Make the labneh the day before by mashing a garlic clove and some salt into 250g Greek yoghurt. Now bear with me because you may not want to bother with the next bit but it is easy and crucial. Put the mixture in a sieve lined with muslin resting over a bowl to catch the liquid and leave in the fridge overnight. The result is easily worth waiting for.
Now roast 12 good tomatoes cut in halves or quarters if they are very large. Put them in a shallow roasting pan with 4 tbsp olive oil and 2 tbsp balsamic vinegar, a teaspoon of harissa and a teaspoon of soft dark sugar and mix well. Put in a preheated oven at 180 for about 40 minutes until they are shrunken but not mush.
Caramelise 2 finely sliced onions over a high heat in a frying pan with 2 tbsp olive oil, 0.5 tsp cinnamon, 1.5 tsp soft dark sugar, salt and pepper and a good squeeze of lemon. Fry until crispy and brown round the edges.
Wilt 600g spinach in the water left on it after washing and draining. (Over a moderate heat this happens very quickly if you haven’t done it before.) Immediately drain it, roughly chop it and add a dash of olive oil.
To make the pilaf saute another onion and a clove of garlic finely chopped in a little oil until soft. Add 175g bulgar wheat and 300ml of chicken or vegetable stock* and bring to the boil. Turn down the heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Leave to rest for another 10 minutes and then fluff up with a fork. (The wheat will have absorbed the stock.)
Now comes the fun part. Choose your favourite large bowl, dish or platter and layer the pilaf with the tomatoes and juices, some chopped mint if you have it (or another herb if you don’t) and the spinach. On top arrange lumps of labneh you have broken apart and finally the crispy caramelised onions.