New book explores expanding world of yogurt
It’s impossible to walk through the supermarket these days without what has become the yogurt aisle. In mainstream markets, fruit-flavored and low-fat varieties still pack the shelves alongside a growing selection of thick, rich Greek, Icelandic, full-fat, cream-top, stirred and others — many containing live active cultures under the foiled lids.
With these ever-expanding options, it was only a matter of time before the cool, creamy treat would become a hot topic and fodder for a devoted foodie.
Enter Janet Fletcher, a Napa Valley-based writer who has covered many culinary trends — particularly of the dairy variety — in her many books, newspaper columns and classes on cheese.
Her latest obsession began when she started noticing all the varieties on the shelf at her local market .
“Every week the yogurt display got bigger and bigger,” she says. “There were more brands, more flavors, more types of yogurt. I could see people standing in front of that wall of yogurt, and they were confused.”
In an effort to demystify yogurt’s increasingly overwhelming selections share tasty ways to enjoy the different varieties, Fletcher has published her latest work, “Yogurt: Sweet and Savory Recipes for Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner” (Ten Speed Press, 2015). Inside the 152-page book, she educates readers on all the supermarket options, offers mouth-watering recipes, gives instructions on how to make yogurt at home and explains the food’s storied history.
The history of yogurt goes back to Neolithic times. Gradually it spread out among diverse cultures, which Fletcher describes as the “arc” of yogurt. She says, “If you look at where yogurt started in Central Asia and where it moved from there, there’s kind of an arc that goes from Belgrade to Beirut and Bombay.”
She illustrates the international takes on the traditional yogurt and cucumber salad. For example, Greek yogurt with garlic and fresh dill becomes Tzatziki. In India, add chile, cumin and cilantro, and it morphs to Cucumber Raita. In Iran, the same salad boasts golden raisins and walnuts and mint (see sidebar recipe). Fletcher explains, “These are all the same salad, but adapted for local palates with spices. I’ve found that again and again in yogurt.”
The book starts with traditional base recipes from across a number of culinary cultures, including savory uses like marinades and more. She adds her own California twist to the recipes and mouthwatering photos that that inspire readers to get cooking.
Fletcher is a fan of plain, unflavored yogurt that people can sweeten to their own tastes with honey, fruit, maple syrup or agave nectar. She also favors full-fat yogurt, which you’ll find recommended in many of the recipes.
If you’re using store-bought, she recommends only buying yogurt with live active cultures. Some brands are pasteurized after culturing, which kills any benefits you might get from them.
Making your own yogurt provides the solution because you control all these factors. Her book includes a recipe that can be made with the fresh milk of your choice. All you have to do is add culture — some of the last batch or a store bought yogurt — and with some heat and time, you’ll get a beautiful thick, creamy and satisfying texture.
Fletcher says, “There’s a yogurt out there for every taste. Whether you like it creamy or mellow, if you play the field, you will find a yogurt you like. If you can, get in the habit of making it yourself.”
Persian Cucumber Salad with Yogurt, Golden Raisins, Walnuts, and Mint
Recipe and excerpt by Janet Fletcher
I love the burst of sweetness from the raisins, the crunch of walnuts, the coolness of mint. The salad complements grilled lamb, or you could serve it as part of a meze assortment with flatbread. I like to use the crisp, thin-skinned, nearly seedless Persian cucumbers—also called Mediterranean cucumbers—that are about six inches long. Najmieh Batmanglij, the author of several Persian cookbooks that I admire, garnishes her version of this salad with dried rose petals. If you have unsprayed rose petals in the garden, they would make a pretty garnish, too. Break into smaller pieces and scatter on top.
Serves 4 to 6
1/4 cup golden raisins
2 cups plain yogurt
1 cup plain strained yogurt (see note below) or Greek yogurt (not nonfat)
1 to 2 cloves garlic, grated or finely minced
1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill, plus more for garnish
1 teaspoon finely minced fresh mint
Kosher or sea salt
2 cups Persian or English hothouse cucumber, in ¼-inch dice (no need to peel)
1/3 cup coarsely chopped toasted walnuts
1) Place raisins in a small bowl, add water to barely cover, and let plump for at least 1 hour. Drain.
2) In a large bowl, whisk together yogurts, garlic, dill, mint and salt to taste. Add raisins, cucumbers and walnuts. Stir well; then taste and adjust seasoning.
3) Serve immediately, garnished with more chopped dill; or cover and refrigerate for up to 1 hour. If you want to hold the salad longer, leave the walnuts out initially and add them just before serving to preserve their crunch.
Note: I like this salad to have a thicker, creamier texture than I can get from plain yogurt alone, so I add a little strained or Greek yogurt for extra body. For strained yogurt, drain plain yogurt in a sieve lined with a double thickness of cheesecloth for 1 to 2 hours.