I love herbs. They have the ability to bring out the best of the main ingredients, adding a freshness and flavour which lifts almost any dish. But they are also fantastic in their own right, as the main ingredient. Surely anyone who has eaten tabbouleh in the Middle East can testify. Unlike in the west, where proportions are often inverted, their tabbouleh is a wonderfully fresh chopped herb salad with a few small specks of bulgur. It’s absolutely delicious. So whenever I serve meze, as I often do, I try to incorporate a herb based salad.
This one is no tabbouleh, although its inspiration is from a Yotam Ottolenghi recipe which in turn was inspired by tabbouleh. It does include a lot of parsley and mint. There’s also barley and marinated feta cheese, neither of which appear in tabbouleh but do in Ottolenghi’s salad. They both work really well with the herbs, adding a richness in both texture and flavour.
I say feta cheese, but in fact I don’t use feta cheese at all. I use a good-quality Turkish beyaz peynir, the Turkish equivalent. But as feta is much more readily available outside Turkey, and commercially produced feta cheese tends to be infinitely better than commercially produced beyaz peynir, I recommend using the best-quality feta cheese you can find and afford for this salad. Unless you live in Turkey, in which case go for the best-quality beyaz peynir you can find. I buy the Ezine variety in loose weight at my local cheese shop.
The cheese is marinated in za’atar, a spice mix containing a type of wild thyme that grows in the Middle East also called za’atar (zahter in Turkish), sesame seeds, sumac (though not always) and a little salt. When buying za’atar, always check the ingredient list. Some cheaper varieties have substantial amounts of corn flour or similar added and are of lesser quality – avoid anything that contains more than the four ingredients listed above if you can. If you can’t get hold of za’atar, try a mixture of two parts dried thyme, two parts sesame seeds, one part sumac and a little salt. It won’t be exactly the same, but also very good.
Barley & herb salad with feta works fantastically alongside any grilled or barbecued meat or fish, but is also an excellent starter or can form part of a table of sharing platters. Or even as a vegetarian lunch with some good bread on the side. Serves 3-4 as a side.
- 100 g feta cheese or good-quality beyaz peynir, crumbled into c. 1.5 cm cubes
- 5 tbsp (75 ml) extra virgin olive oil
- 1 tsp za’atar
- 50 g barley
- c. 40 g (medium bunch) roughly chopped flat leaf parsley, tough stems discarded
- 20-25 mint leaves (c. 5 g), roughly chopped
- 1 red romano pepper, decored, deseeded and cut into 1/2 cm dice
- 1 clove of garlic, crushed to a paste with a little salt using a pestle and mortar
- 2 tbsp (30 ml) fresh lemon juice
- salt and pepper
- Gently mix the feta cheese with 2 tbsp (30m ml) extra virgin olive oil and the za’atar. Cover and leave to marinate in the fridge while preparing the rest of the salad.
- Boil the barley in plenty of lightly salted water until soft but still retaining a slight bite, 30-40 minutes. Drain and rinse with plenty of cold water to stop the cooking process.
- Make the dressing my mixing the garlic , lemon juice and 3 tbsp (45 ml) extra virgin olive oil.
- Toss the barley, herbs, pepper and dressing until well mixed. Season with salt and pepper. Remove to a serving tray and top with the marinated cheese.