Like many other Israelis relocating to America, my first concern was hummus. Will I be able to find the dip that had been the centerpiece of any casual dining in Israel? And will it be the good kind, or that industrial type that no Israeli with any self-respect will serve at home?
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But hummus, as we all know, is now a staple of American cuisine, and while it’s still not easy to find the real good stuff outside of NYC or LA, you can get reasonable hummus almost everywhere. (Or make it yourself.)
Then came the second circle of Middle Eastern products that became sorely missed, particularly labneh. This Arab cheese is made by straining the whey out of yogurt in order to get a thicker, creamy, slightly sour cheese. It is then served with flat bread, just like hummus, with a drizzle of olive oil, or rolled into balls to be preserved in olive oil for a longer shelf life.
Like hummus, labneh can now be found in many U.S. supermarket chains, such as Whole Foods, and, of course, in Middle Eastern and Jewish markets. But the real thing is made with sheep or goat yogurt, which give the cheese its special taste and a perfect sourness, and is hard to find.
The good news is, there’s nothing easier than making labneh at home. All it takes is a full-fat sheep or goat yogurt, a little salt, and cheesecloth. In about 10 hours you’ll get the labneh of your dreams (recipe below).
Labneh balls preserved in olive oil are also popular in the Levant and in Israel, especially among the Druze community. So that they keep their shape, this labneh is much drier than the spreadable labneh. In the U.S. it is available at Middle Eastern stores, but these labneh balls tend to be so dry and sour that they may be suitable only for cooking. Just like the spreadable labneh, there’s an easy trick to making labneh balls at home in no time.
I use labneh, homemade and store bought, all the time, and not just to serve on a mezze table next to hummus, tahini, chopped salad and babaganoush. I see labneh as a superior yogurt and use it in place of yogurt in recipes like tzatziki and yogurt dressings. Labneh is excellent with roasted beets (recipe below), fried zucchini or eggplant, with fresh ripe tomatoes, and in this recipe for roasted eggplant with labneh and pomegranate molasses. I even substitute some of the quark cheese in an Israeli cheesecake with labneh, and get a more dense and slightly sour cake that’s perfect. And the best way to eat it? Spread it on a toast with thinly sliced tomatoes and a sprinkle of salt. It’s wonderful.
The best and most authentic labneh is made with full-fat sheep or goat yogurt, but since this is not widely available, you can substitute half the sheep yogurt with full-fat Greek yogurt.
You will need a cheesecloth for this recipe.
Yields about 10 oz. labneh
2 lb. Full-fat sheep or goat yogurt (see note above)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Place a colander over a large bowl. Spread a few layers cheesecloth over the colander, letting it drape over the sides. Mix yogurt and salt, and pour into the cheesecloth. Carefully gather cheesecloth and tie, making sure the yogurt is not too runny and it doesn’t run too quickly through the cheesecloth. If it does, you can leave the cheesecloth in the colander to drip. Otherwise, tie cheesecloth and hang on the faucet over the kitchen sink. Let yogurt drip for 6-8 hours, (or for 24 hours in the fridge), until it gets the consistency of cream cheese. Add salt to taste. Store in a sealed container in the fridge for up to a week.
Put in a bowl, drizzle with olive oil and serve with pita bread. You can mix in herbs or chives, or sprinkle with za’atar.
In order to make the balls, the labneh needs to be extra thick. Follow the directions in the labneh recipe above, and give the yogurt extra time to strain, about 10-12 hours altogether, until the labneh is thick enough to shape. Refrigerate labneh, still in the cheesecloth, for a couple of hours before rolling.
Dip your hands in olive oil and roll the labneh into 1 inch balls, and put on a tray. Put tray in the fridge for 12 hours or overnight, uncovered, until labneh balls are dry. Carefully transfer to a jar and cover with olive oil. Keep in fridge until serving.
Roasted beets are available in most health supermarkets and some chain stores.
1 to 1½ lb. roasted beets or baby beets
1 cup labneh, store bought or homemade
1/2 cup chopped chives, plus more for sprinkling
3 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for drizzling
Salt to taste
If you need to roast the beets, heat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit (190 degrees Celsius). Wash beets and toss with a little olive oil, arrange in a rimmed baking sheet, cover with aluminum foil and roast for 45-60 minutes until tender. Peel beets while still warm. Let cool and slice thinly.
If you’re using store-bough roasted beets, just slice the beets and set aside.
In a medium bowl mix labneh, chives, olive oil and salt to taste.
Spread labneh on a serving plate, arrange sliced beets on top, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with chives.