- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 29, 2005

By now, the weather is warming, and it’s easy to get carried away, dust off the grill and bid farewell to winter. With Easter just past, spring pastels in the stores and our spirits craving sunshine, our minds naturally begin to drift toward summer.

One way to brighten a spring meal is to bring those sweet grape and cherry tomatoes into the menu, especially because the really good homegrown tomatoes are months away.

A lively combination of grilled lamb, fragrant tomatoes and tabbouleh salad is just the tonic for spring. Cherry tomatoes are smashed and seasoned with red wine vinegar, olive oil and a handful of fresh mint leaves.

The tabbouleh is started from a tabbouleh-salad mix of bulgur or cracked wheat. You can prepare it the day or night before, adding the lemon-juice-and-olive-oil mixture and refrigerating it, covered with plastic wrap.

Or use the soaking time to heat the grill and prep the rest of the dish.

Tabbouleh soaks up the lamb juices beautifully. So pour a glass of red wine, place a basket of warm pita bread on the table, and serve something light and lemony for dessert — say, a pudding or pie that can be made ahead.

Five time-shaving ways to enliven dinner with little tomatoes

Until the big summer tomatoes come into season, grape and cherry tomatoes are a sweet substitute. Here’s how to incorporate a pint of them into easy, healthful dinners:

• Cut the tomatoes in halves and toss them in a large glass or ceramic bowl with cubes of fresh mozzarella cheese, a pinch of salt, a grinding of black pepper, a pressed clove of garlic, and a cup of chopped fresh basil or parsley. Add 4 cups of freshly cooked hot penne and a tablespoon or two of good olive oil. Toss to melt the cheese, and eat.

• Pulse rinsed whole tomatoes in a food processor fitted with a steel blade until they are coarsely chopped. Dump into a serving bowl, and serve with shredded lettuce and cheese atop your favorite taco or burrito. Add a seeded jalapeno pepper; a squeeze of lime juice; a drizzle of olive oil; and a pinch of salt, pepper and cumin to the pulsing tomatoes, and you have a fresh salsa for a grilled fish or chicken dinner.

• Pulse the tomatoes as mentioned above, then drain well and toss with finely chopped ham. Added to beaten eggs, this becomes a main-dish omelet.

• Halve or pulse the tomatoes, and toss them in a large salad bowl with 2 cups shredded fresh spinach leaves, cup of seasoned feta cheese crumbles, 4 cups cooked pasta and a tablespoon of olive oil. Toss for a nice pasta salad, perfect for dinner or tomorrow’s brown-bag lunch. Add olives or artichoke hearts if you have them on hand.

• Again, halve or pulse those sweet tomatoes. Now add them by the spoonful to a Caesar salad kit, along with grilled chicken strips.

Grilled lamb chops with bruised tomato salad and tabbouleh

1 5.25-ounce package tabbouleh salad mix

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil, plus olive oil for brushing the lamb chops, divided

12 loin lamb chops (1 to 1 inches thick; about 3 pounds total)

Garlic salt and black pepper

1 pint (2 cups) grape or cherry tomatoes

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

1 cup torn fresh mint or basil leaves

Bring a pot of water to a boil. Place tabbouleh salad mix with its seasonings and 1 cup boiling water in a large heat-proof mixing bowl.

Stir to combine, then let the tabbouleh soak in the refrigerator, uncovered, for 30 minutes. Whisk together lemon juice and 1 tablespoon olive oil in a small bowl and set aside.

Meanwhile, heat the grill to medium-high.

Brush lamb chops with olive oil, season with garlic salt and pepper, and set aside.

Place tomatoes in a large bowl, and mash them with a potato masher until they are flattened. Add vinegar, 1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil, and mint or basil, and stir to mix. Set tomato salad aside.

Remove tabbouleh from refrigerator and stir. If water hasn’t been completely absorbed, drain off the excess. Stir in reserved lemon-juice-and-olive-oil mixture. Set tabbouleh aside.

Place lamb chops on grill, and cook until medium-rare, about 6 minutes per side if they are 1 inch thick, 8 minutes per side if they are thicker. Transfer grilled chops to a platter.

To serve, divide tabbouleh among 6 serving plates.

Top each serving with 2 lamb chops, and spoon some of tomato salad on the top and to the side.

Serve at once.

Makes 6 servings.

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