Herbalist Rita Heikenfeld — With a Lebanese Recipe for Tabouleh

‘When you grow your own herbs and vegetables,’ says Heikenfeld, ‘you know where they come from and you can see them grow. Plus it makes you take life a little slower. And that’s a good thing.’

Two of Rita Heikenfeld’s grandchildren explore the herb garden.
Two of Rita Heikenfeld’s grandchildren explore the herb garden. (photo: Courtesy of Rita Heikenfeld)

 An herbalist and certified culinary professional, Rita Nader Heikenfeld lives in a country setting outside Cincinnati, Ohio. She has a devotion to gardening and calls her home area “a little patch of heaven.” A member of the Holy Trinity church in nearby Bavaria, Rita said she grew up Catholic raised by Lebanese parents.

“We talked about foods and traditions,” she said. “My Catholic upbringing was very typical of a big family of nine children, a good Catholic family. … We walked to church and walked to our Catholic school.”

Of course, in this Lebanese household, Rita’s mother often cooked Lebanese foods, especially on Sunday.

“Mom always fixed wonderful meals on a tight budget,” she said. “My mom and dad went to a local slaughterhouse for lamb to make ethnic foods and she would buy the lamb, grind it herself, and what was leftover she would fry.”

She recalled that in the summer months, her mother made tabouleh (a typical Lebanese food).

“Instead of forks, wild grape leaves or leaf lettuce was used to scoop up the tabouleh,” she said. “Heartier Lebanese fare was cooked during winter, like Lebanese green beans with lamb, tomatoes, rice and cinnamon.”

As Rita recalled, her mother made all the foods in a tiny kitchen on a porcelain table and let the children watch. After all, she said, Lebanese cooks use their hands, not cups or spoons, to measure and stir ingredients.

“I make Lebanese food from a big pot,” she said, “and that reminds me much of what my mom and dad did for us growing up. When I was learning to cook as a young adult, I would have measuring spoons out and I would measure what she did. ‘That’s not going to work’ my mom said. She was a firm believer in the sensory aspects of cooking food.”

Now as an adult and an active gardener and herbalist, Rita credits her mom also with her passion for flavoring foods with herbs instead of salt.

“Parsley is a vitamin-filled plant,” she said, “and when you add parsley to a dish, you need less salt. Both thyme and bay are wonderful salt replacements, as well.”

She recalled that her mother used to grow all the Lebanese herbs in a big kettle by the back door of their house, and in the backyard in spring.

She noted that her husband wanted a big vegetable garden and along with vegetables, she started growing herbs like basil, mint, thyme and parsley.

“The gardens expanded from year to year,” she said. “My husband was the general manager of a fine-dining restaurant and I would sell herbs, produce and jellies to the restaurant.”

Her garden is divided into sections for household, medicinal, culinary and biblical herbs. And she invites people over and lets them feel and taste the herbs, while sharing herbal history and lore. Rita offers chilled lemon/mint water to refresh them during the tour.

She said she and her husband have 11 grandchildren, six of whom live nearby. Rita enjoys having them harvest produce and herbs from the gardens, then taking the bounty into the kitchen to cook.

“I enjoy showing and teaching my grandchildren,” she said, “especially in the biblical garden with a statue of Mary. It is a good way to expand their faith. Besides, herbs were used in biblical days.”

“When you grow your own herbs and vegetables,” she added, “you know where they come from and you can see them grow. Plus it makes you take life a little slower. And that’s a good thing.”

Recipe: My Mom’s Tabouleh

Serves 8

Fresh wild grape leaves make lovely scoops. So does leaf lettuce. Use this recipe as a guide — these heirloom recipes were never written down. Tip from Rita’s Kitchen: Be sure and buy bulghur/bulgur cracked wheat so that it reconstitutes in cool water easily. This wheat comes in three “grinds.” My preference is for #2.


  • 1 cup bulghur cracked wheat, #2 grind 
  • 4 to 5 medium tomatoes, chopped fine, skin left on or about 2 containers cherry or grape tomatoes, cut in quarters (I like cherry or grape tomatoes in the autumn/winter) 
  • 3 to 4 green onions (scallions), sliced thin, white and green parts
  • Several radishes, chopped fine (optional)
  • 1/2 to 1 English or garden cucumber, chopped fine, skin left on or peeled if desired 
  • 1 medium bell pepper, chopped fine
  • Cumin to taste, start with 1 teaspoon
  • Couple sprigs each chopped mint and basil (optional) or a couple pinches of each, dried (optional also)
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Corn, canola, or olive to taste (start with 3 to 4 tablespoons)
  • Lemon juice to taste 

Directions :

  1. Place wheat in bowl and rinse under cool water three times. (Why three times? Because my mom said so!)
  2. Leave about 1/4 inch of water after the third rinse on top of the wheat to soften it. Let sit for 20 to 30 minutes, until the water is absorbed and wheat is tender. Squeeze to drain any remaining liquid out.
  3. Mix vegetables: add all vegetables and parsley in a large bowl, mixing gently. Add cumin, mint, basil and salt and pepper. Add wheat and mix well. Add oil, a little at a time, and mix. Taste for seasonings. Add lemon juice to taste.