Most Wednesdays I write about a new food I am trying, but today I am going to write about one of my favorite standbys in my ovo-lacto vegetarian eating. I mention yogurt almost every week it seems.
I have already written here in make-a-(green)plan about my first episode of eating a Lebanese dish of yogurt with cucumbers and dried mint. I nearly gagged with the completely foreign taste when I was expecting a whipped cream ambrosia salad. Subsequently I became a huge fan and advocate for plain yogurt. I could care less if I ever have milk or cottage cheese again. Same with ice cream or cream for my coffee. But yogurt, especially yogurt cheese – you’d see me grovel for this. Ironically, in that post about my first taste I sneered at all the ‘white’ or 'beige' food of the US diet I grew up eating. Today I find, in the text I am quoting about Middle Eastern yogurt, or laban, the word comes from LBN, the Arabic word ‘white’. BTW, these Arabic words have a different phonetic spelling in every place I see them.
Instead of mayonnaise, sour cream, cream cheese or ranch dressing I use yogurt with herbs and spices. I don’t have to buy any of these prepared foods if I have real yogurt. I say real because most of the stuff in the grocery stores seems to be fake yogurt with gelatin rather than cultures. It is also so sweet – even the plain. Yogurt is used to garnish stews and to top potatoes, using only a dollop, to moisten and give hot food a creamy counterpoint in flavor and temperature. I am currently buying this Sadaf Kefir cheese (lebni) product because of the tangy taste and because I can get it easily and cheaply. I made yogurt this year and intend to make this a regular part of my eating routine and this Sadaf yogurt will be my starter. I know where to get milk from a California organic dairy in a glass bottle, but I need to drive. This isn’t in my regular routine and I still have doubts about dairy in my diet, but I am not ruling it out for my make-a-(green)plan goals. In the meantime I can get this Sadaf yogurt cheese a mile or so away.
I no longer have Middle Eastern family or friends around to ask questions, so I turn to the internet. One site has recipes very close to what my mother-in-law taught me forty years ago. I tried to use the contact tab on the site, but it was a dead end. I want to quote this author verbatim about Lebanese cooking and some of my favorite yogurt recipes. I get a kick out of the style.
Lebanese food was always one of the country's principal attractions, and it has now largely passed the borders to become extremely popular in the West. Lebanese cuisine as a whole goes under the heading "health food". It is mostly based on cereals, in the shape of bread, bourghoul (crushed wheat) and rice. A large and varied assortment of vegetables and milk products accompany the above, and meat plays a relatively small part.
Bread was and still is treasured; it is never thrown away. If it has become truly improper for consumption, it is kissed before being disposed of. Stale bread is grilled in the oven or fried so that it becomes dry and crunchy as cracker; such grilled bread is a tasty variant that enters the composition of several dishes.
Several foreign dishes, like couscous, French fries and spaghetti, have been imported into the cuisine and thoroughly modified to the point of rivaling the original recipes. They were adapted to the local ways to the extent of becoming a part of the traditional food.
One more thing should be said about the recipes you will find below: the proportions are merely indicative. Lebanese dishes are very free on that point, and every household adapts the dosage of the ingredients to taste. You too should tweak them until you are happy with the taste. Please note also that Lebanese vegetables are very flavored and very small (as an example, cucumbers are about 4 inches long) and that you may need to take this into consideration when getting the ingredients.
I include here simple recipes that are either daily to us or serve as a basis for other dishes -- starting with making your own yogurt and derivatives the Lebanese way.
What the west calls yogurt, that we call laban, was already made and enjoyed thousands of years ago by the Phoenicians. Laban, labneh, and Lebanon all come from the ancient word LBN meaning "white". If you like yogurt, you will enjoy making your own with this very old method.
(yogurt or curdled milk)
1 liter of milk (during the war when only powder milk was available, my mom would use that and it would turn out great)
1 tablespoon of rennet (or readymade yogurt)
If the milk is raw, boil it. [?] If it's pasteurized, warm it to 451⁄4C (if you can insert your finger and count till 10 without getting burned, the temperature is right).
Dilute the rennet or yogurt in a bit of milk and pour into the lukewarm milk. It is even better if the latter is in an earthenware recipient at that point. Stir with a spoon then cover with a thick duffel or the like.
Leave it 4 hours.
Yogurt/laban can be eaten sweet or salted, and we use it for many recipes such as stuffed zucchini with laban, stuffed vine leaves with laban, meat stew with laban... A very simple and very fresh recipe is to mix laban with crushed dry mint leaves, salt and sliced cucumbers.
Once you have made laban, you can make a variety of derivatives, the most popular of them all being labneh.
(drained curdled milk)
Prepare the laban as explained above, then add 1 teaspoon of salt for every liter you have.
Stir gently and then pour inside a thin mesh bag. Suspend the bag overnight so that it can drain; my mom would suspend it to the tap of the kitchen sink. Whether you want the laban to lose all or part of its water is up to you. The result will be a white spread-like cheese. Empty the contents of the bag in a dish, beat slightly and keep in the fridge.
There are many ways to eat labneh, this wonderfully healthy and versatile cheese.
• The classical way is to spread it in a round dish, and with a spoon create a depression in the center so that the result is like a shallow labneh basin. Pour olive oil all over: it will form a pool in the center of the dish. Eat it by taking scoops with "pita" bread, accompanying it with salt, mint leaves, or olives.
• If you like garlic, pound some and mix it to the labneh to obtain labneh-with-garlic, a delicacy.
• Spread it in "pita" bread or even on toast bread and add slices of cucumber or tomato.
• The young generation appreciates labneh as an alternative dip for french fries or nachos.
Prepare labneh but let the laban drain completely. At that stage, the cheese comes easily loose from the bag. Transfer it to a bowl and knead it well so as not to leave any lump. If it's not drained enough, put it back in the bag for a few more hours. Check that it is salted to your taste.
Thoroughly heap the resulting cheese in a glass jar that can be sealed, and keep it in the fridge or a fresh place.
Both laban and labneh keep a while in a sealed container in the fridge, but if they turn sour they should be thrown away. Packed labneh can be kept up to 6 months.
(labneh in oil)
Prepare labneh malboudeh, but instead of packing the labneh in a jar, roll little balls the size of a nut in your hands. Fill a jar with olive oil up to 1/3rd, then fill it with the labneh balls. Add oil as you go; when the jar is full, the balls should be covered with about 1/2 inch oil. Prepared in this way, and if you're careful to always keep oil above the balls once you start consuming them, the cheese can be kept for over a year. However, as it ages it turns slightly more sour (personally I like it best when it does).
When prepared with goat milk, this recipe is a delicacy.
The basic labneh, cut with water and salted, makes a refreshing drink to be served cold.
Recipes from Fayez Aoun's 280 recettes de cuisine familiale libanaise.
Cheese in oil
P.S. A beautiful website for recipes and photographs of labney is Swirl and Scramble.