It’s not just a sweet snack anymore, but a “creamy blank canvas.” Add yogurt to tomatoes, avocados and cucumbers to make a fresh summertime dish.
Yogurt is hugely popular in American supermarkets, but it’s often sweetened to sugar-bomb status, packed into snack cups or processed into squeezable tubes. In food writer Cheryl Sternman Rule’s kitchen, though, we get a worldwide, whirlwind tour of the versatile ingredient.
In her new book, “Yogurt Culture,” ($22, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), yogurt is a tart, creamy blank canvas, as appealing in savory dishes as sweet ones, as welcome at dinner and dessert as for breakfast and lunch. Her goal, she says, is “to give people that expanded view of this common food that they thought they knew.”
The book includes directions for making your own yogurt at home, though Rule says buying it at the store is fine, too — she does both.
Cheryl Sternman Rule will speak and sign copies of her new book at 7 p.m. Wednesday, June 24, at the Gay City Health Project, 517 E. Pike St.
Yogurt samples will be on hand from local favorite Ellenos Greek Yogurt, and Rule will donate $5 from the sale of each book to the nonprofit Health Project. (Free, but RSVP to Emily@gaycity.org.)
She will also appear in conversation with Megan Gordon, owner of Seattle-based Marge Granola, at 6:30 p.m., Thursday, June 25, at The Book Larder, 4252 Fremont Ave. (206-397-4271 or booklarder.com)
Q: What can you tell us about the culture of yogurt?
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A: The title of the book is a pun, of course, because yogurt is both a cultured food, in that it is fermented with live bacteria, but also a very global food. I, as a former Peace Corps volunteer and somebody who is inspired by culinary traditions across the world, was eager from the outset to showcase how yogurt is used in different world cultures.
Q: What are some yogurt uses or recipes you think would surprise readers the most?
A: I think there are going to be quite a few, more on the savory side, probably, than the sweet side. They may not be aware of how lovely it is in soups … it’s beautiful in cakes with olive oil, in cupcakes … It goes well with so many different spices, not just salt and pepper, which is obvious, but anything Middle Eastern — za’atar, sumac.
It goes beautifully with all kinds of seeds, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, anything crunchy. It’s such a smooth food, texturally, that anything that provides an element of contrast is also really nice: crunchy vegetables, nuts, herbs, anything with a contrasting textural component.
Q: Tell me more about the role yogurt plays in baking?
A: Because it’s acidic, yogurt behaves similarly to buttermilk and sour cream in baked goods. It activates baking soda, which in turn causes baked goods to lift, swell, and rise. It tenderizes cakes, delivers moisture (so long as you use yogurt with some fat), and, when strained, serves as a luxe filling for tarts, especially ones topped with summery fruit.
Q: I was intrigued by your book’s recipes for cooking with labneh (ultra-strained, lightly salted yogurt “cheese”) and with whey. I rarely see recipes for those.
A: Labneh is easier to cook with, though I tend to use it more as a base on its own and then top it with other things that have been cooked. I have a “Brownie Labneh Dimpled Tart” — it’s like a sophisticated cream-cheese brownie, where the labneh does not dissolve into the batter but stays discrete, so you get this pool of creaminess that contrasts so beautifully with the brownie.
Labneh is also salty, so you get a sweet and salty contrast as well. On the savory side, I use it in a frittata with shiitake mushrooms, kale and shallots. Again, it doesn’t just dissolve into the eggs, it stays noticeable, so you get a creamy bite next to the vegetables. It’s very versatile. And because the whey is super-strained out from labneh, it’s pretty stable, and tends not to be bothered by heat the way yogurt is.
Q: You have a recipe that adds yogurt to whipped cream to make the whipped cream last longer in the fridge. Why have I never heard of this magical step before?
A: I certainly didn’t make it up, but I worked in a bakery very briefly after culinary school, so I have a couple of tricks. One of the things I learned is that whipped cream is highly unstable — once you whip, it starts to deflate almost immediately. Yogurt, particularly Greek yogurt, provides stability.
Q: What do you tell people who are intimidated at the idea of making homemade yogurt?
A: Homemade yogurt is not difficult. It simply takes time, and that time is mostly inactive. That said, it is both a science and an art, so if you try to make homemade yogurt and you do not have success the first time, that does not mean you are unable to make homemade yogurt. It just means you might want to try again and pay very close attention to the time and temperature prompts I give in the book.
Q: What was the first time you made yogurt yourself?
A: The first time was when I lived in Eritrea with my husband. We were Peace Corps volunteers for two years. We had eaten yogurt on a dish called fate, a spicy tomato — I’d call it a bread salad, but the tomatoes are soft, they’re cooked down into a sauce … I can’t remember if my husband got a homesteading cookbook from the capital at a library or from a friend, but there were instructions in it on how to make your own yogurt. We started experimenting, and it took a few tries, but we learned how to do it.
Q: It seems we went through a phase where commercial flavored yogurt was considered a health food, then a phase where it was seen as a sugary dessert. Are there any commercial yogurts people can buy now that they can feel good about eating?
A: Unquestionably, yes. I think people need to read ingredient labels. There is a vast difference between a yogurt that has a long ingredients list and a yogurt that is nothing more than dairy and active cultures.
You’re going to find both in most supermarkets, and quite a large span in between, because the yogurt case has grown so big. The market now, I think, is moving in a more healthful direction in that some of the big players, Dannon and Yoplait, have reduced the sugar content from some of their sweetened yogurts, and you have smaller companies that are making plain yogurt with good fats.
Tomato, Avocado and Cucumber Salad
If you’ve never traveled to a country where savory yogurt rules, you may be surprised by how much you love the simple and healthful marriage of diced salad ingredients with plain yogurt drizzled with olive oil. The clean flavors shine at breakfast, lunch or anytime you need an energy boost. And, yes, you can swap in any fresh, seasonal raw vegetables you like.
Serves 1 or 2
1 cup plain yogurt (preferably whole-milk Greek yogurt)
½ avocado, diced
½ cup diced unpeeled English cucumber
1 thick slice tomato, diced
2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
Finishing salt, such as Maldon
Substantial sprinkling of minced fresh herbs or microgreens of your choice
1. With the back of a spoon, spread the yogurt in a wide, shallow bowl.
2. Sprinkle in the avocado, cucumber, and tomato. Drizzle with the oil.
3. Season with salt and garnish generously with the herbs or microgreens.
Excerpted from Yogurt Culture, © 2015 by Cheryl Sternman Rule. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.