What to Do with Yogurt: Labneh

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Sometimes even the most humble things yield luxury. Case in point: A large tub of Byblos yogurt bought at a local store for $3.49. I buy two at a time. One for pure yogurt purposes. The other for this. After an evening in the fridge cradled in a paper towel-lined sieve, the yogurt emerges from its cold stasis as creamy and thick incarnation of itself. Labneh -- yogurt cheese.

I always get it at one of my favorite restaurants in town, Mazza. Though it is associated with Middle Eastern food, labneh lends itself to any cuisine and in my case, my any need. It is the basis of many a dip in my recipe arsenal, both planned and unplanned. As is drizzled simply with good olive oil and showered with coarse sea salt, it's a luxurious spread for warm bread leavened or otherwise. It loves the company of olives, roasted red peppers (jarred or made from scratch; labneh won't judge them), a steaming hot baked potato ...

Labneh plays well with everything.

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I wholeheartedly admit this is very much a bastardized version of traditional labneh recipes; the ones I tried during the blog hiatus. I've watched barely simmering pots of dairy cultured with bacteria from a mother strain making sure they don't get too hot. I've bought cheesecloth with bold ambitions. Usually, buying cheesecloth does involve some sort of bold ambition.

But even after all of that trial and error, the simplest way from point A (yogurt) to point B (labneh AKA yogurt cheese) is, blissfully, a simple operation.

Yes, that is paper towel you see lining my rusty little sieve. Call it the ultimately lazy route, but I figured if the commercials say they're so sturdy, can hold chubby babies from 10 story buildings, etc., I figured it could handle a little gentle moisture from a tub of yogurt.

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Labneh, The Lazy Way

Here's the drill: Take a sieve, nothing fancy. Then take a one sheet (large-standard size, not the mini half sizes you get with some rolls) of paper towel. Whatever is handy. Place that into the sieve and fold an overlap in one section so that it fits and is flush with the sieve's surface. Think of those paper-cup popcorn holders your substitute elementary school teacher taught you to make. Remember, it isn't origami. Place the sieve (mine has little wire fangs on one side for the very purpose of propping itself up onto edges) over a bowl. The 4-cup Pyrex cup works for me.

Then take large tub of plain yogurt and mix in some kosher salt (or sea salt if you're feeling decadent) straight into the container. Give it a mix. I like yogurt with a bit of tang. Others may prefer something mild. Since you're making it, it's your call. Organic varieties are good. As is the Byblos brand I buy from Caputo's Market. What won't work is the wonderfully thick Fage (Fah-yeh) Greek yogurt. The effect will be far less dramatic. So what's the point?

Spread it out so that nothing runs the risk of oozing out over the sides. I tend to get quiet at this point, using my red silicone spatula to even out the surface with motions employed in the odd day I'm frosting a cake. When done in a quiet kitchen it's theraputic.

Cover the yogurt with plastic and place the sieve-bowl arrangement into your fridge. This is probably the hardest part: finding or making room in your fridge. But luckily it's just for one night. And the next day when you lift up the plastic wrapping, the give between the yogurt and clear wrap is different. The pyrex will be filled with a clearish liquid, the whey (as you see above). It should've gone down in mass by 1/3 to 1/2 of its original size.

Empty the contents into a bowl or container and keep covered for up to a week and use as needed. Or use immediately (see suggestions above). Za'atar, a Middle Eastern spice blend is a nice addition to the simple olive oil and coarse salt trick. It's also handy for those counting calories, points, etc. as a substitute for cream cheese. Either way, you can spare yourself a trip (and an extra expense) to several markets, searching in vain for this stuff.

I've even used it as part of a marinade for chicken. Combine a cup of it with as much harissa (North African chile paste) as you can handle or alternatively, mix in some chopped red chiles. Then add some chopped green onion, salt, a sprinkle of corn starch and a squeeze of lemon juice. Mix thoroughly and coat chicken pieces with it and marinate for a few minutes or overnight. Cook in a 375-degree oven until the chicken is done and the marinade has transformed into a burnished crust.

Thanks, Agnes, for the stash of delicious hummus.