labneh

This is another wonderful rice pilaf adapted from our favorite Iranian cook book, New Food of Life, by Najmieh Batmanglij. I prepared it for our New Year’s Eve party and we shared it with our friends Jasmine Turner and Prof. T.

fragrant herbed basmati polow

fragrant herbed basmati polow

Steven “suggested” the meal, and I’m glad. I was a bit jet lagged from our recent trip to Virginia and couldn’t organize my thoughts around what to cook for our last dinner of 2011: obviously an important decision in any kitchen. This rice is wonderfully fragrant and light. It whispers that spring is coming soon…

Here I didn’t use ghee. Instead I used just a single tablespoon of butter, and extra virgin olive oil for the rest. The recipe calls for plain yogurt but I used labneh—I can’t help it, I’m, addicted to the stuff. I mixed up the herb ratios compared to Najmieh’s recommendations and deployed the cinnamon parsimoniously.

Lastly, this dish requires attention to the process of making it otherwise it won’t turn out the way it is supposed to be. I’ve tried making similar recipes before skipping steps and the result was not as effective, so between prepping and the actual cooking, it took me about 3 hours to prepare.

fragrant herbed basmati polow

3 cups basmati rice
¾ cup whole scallions, roughly chopped
1½ cups dill, roughly chopped
2 cups Italian parsley, roughly chopped
2 cups cilantro, roughly chopped
2 stalks fresh Chinese garlic plants, roughly chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp saffron threads (~ 1 gram), dissolved/soaked in 5 tbsp warm water
2 tbsp labneh
Sprinkles of cinnamon
1 tbsp butter
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt

Rinse basmati rice 3 times in warm water. Transfer rice to a large bowl then add 8 cups of water and two teaspoons of salt. Stir it and soak for 2 hours.

Towards the last 15 minutes of soaking, fill a large pot with 8 cups of water, 1 tsp of salt and bring it to a boil. Rinse soaking rice and put it in the boiling water. Parboil it for about 5 minutes and drain.

Mix all herbs with minced garlic and some salt. Set aside

Using a separate bowl combine about ¾ cup of parboiled rice, labneh and a third of the saffron threads and juice. Be careful not to break the rice.

Heat a tablespoon of butter and a couple tablespoons of water in the pot used for boiling the rice. Spread rice/labneh mix over the bottom of the pan and cook rice for a couple of minutes at medium high. This will build the delicious brown crust of the dish. Reduce temperature to low.

Add a layer of rice, a tiny sprinkle of cinnamon and then a layer of herbs. Repeat until you run out of ingredients. The last layer should be rice. Sprinkle with some salt, the saffron water and threads, half cup of hot water and half of the olive oil.

Place a paper towel on the top of the pan and then cover with the lid. Continue cooking for about 45 minutes. Do not open the lid until time has lapsed. Remove from heat and let it rest, covered, for another five minutes. Drizzle the rest of the olive oil over, transfer to a serving plate/bowl and voila! Najmieh suggests that you pile the rice in a pyramid shape and serve the crust on the side. That would make it look cuter, but we were starved by then so sort of mixed it all together.

welcome 2012!!!

fireworks display over downtown San Francisco and the Bay. Welcome 2012!!!

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I adapted this marvelous garbanzo bean recipe from Yotam Ottolenghi’s cookbook, Plenty.

sautéed chickpeas with Swiss chard, spinach and labneh sauce

sautéed chickpeas with Swiss chard, spinach and labneh sauce

I like so many things about Ottolenghi’s book: plenty of them. In particular, from reading and trying out his flavorful recipes, I realize now that unknowingly we’ve been using principles from and eating PLENTY at home all along. Ottolenghi focuses my attention on the process and the order in which ingredients are added or combined to a dish to maximally preserve the individual flavor and freshness of each, while combining harmoniously in a final dish that will taste even better. Here the aromas and volatile components present in herbs such as mint and cilantro, and the powerful presence of garlic all play their individual roles, adding layers of complexity to this meal. I feel I am acting sort of like one of the Iron Chefs today, trying awkwardly to explain myself to the panel of celebrity judges. Yet in a simple dish made with ingredients as prosaic as beans sometimes you truly can find poetry.

sautéed chickpeas with Swiss chard, spinach and labneh sauce

6 cups cooked chickpeas
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
6 medium sized carrots, peeled and cut into ½ inch chunks
2 bunches rainbow Swiss chard
2 cups pre washed spinach leaves
1 tsp cumin seeds
5 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
2 tbsp fresh mint, julienned
2 tbsp cilantro, julienned
Kosher salt to taste
Freshly ground black pepper

for the labneh sauce:

¾ cup labneh
Water
Kosher salt
Olive oil

Wash Swiss chard in lots of water. Separate stalks from leaves. Cut stalks into ½ inch segments. Bring a pot of water to a boil. Drop the Swiss chard stalks in, cover and cook for a couple of minutes. Add chard leaves and cook for a couple of minutes more. Add spinach leaves in the last 30 seconds. Drain.

Add half of the olive oil to a sauce pan on high heat. Next add cumin seeds followed by the carrots and sauté for about 5 minutes. The olive oil will get tinted orange from carrot and the air will be infused with the scent of cumin.

Add chick peas, chard and spinach, give it a good stir. Cook for about 8 minutes. In the last minute of cooking add garlic, cilantro, mint, salt, pepper and the rest of the olive oil. Remove from heat. Taste and adjust flavors if needed. Transfer to a serving platter

To make the labeneh sauce, place labeneh in a bowl, add about 1/3 cup of water and whisk until it reaches the consistency of a thick yogurt. Add salt, pepper and olive oil to taste. Spoon it over the chick peas and serve.

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Heavenly Housewife has been singing the praises of Yotam Ottolenghi lately. She’s even taken an Ottolenghi cooking class in London after waiting forever to get in. Yes, that’s how popular this chef has become in the UK. She posted some delicious treats from the class and then, good heavens, she made some of his salads! That’s a sure sign that she truly adores this chef. I wish we were in London taking Yotam’s classes together. Wouldn’t that be fun? London, Heavenly, Steven, Yotam and me: who could ask for anything more?

Yotam Ottolenghi-style roasted eggplant with labneh, za’atar and pomegranate molasses

Yotam Ottolenghi-style roasted eggplant with labneh, za’atar and pomegranate molasses

Last week while browsing in some colorful Mission Neighborhood shops before it was time for our table at Locanda, I spotted a gorgeous cookbook graced by this eggplant dish. It looked like an objet d’art, a jewel! As you might already guess, the book was Plenty: Vibrant Vegetable Recipes from London’s Ottolenghi. The American version is published by Chronicle Books LLC, right here in San Francisco, very cool! It is packed with a whole lot of exciting vegetarian dishes. I like it so well, that I’ve already prepared four of them, so more to come. The photography in the book is mind-blowing. Our compliments to the photographer, Jonathan Lovekin, and to Yotam Ottolenghi, of course.

I had to adapt the recipe because I didn’t have all the ingredients. Pomegranates are not in season right now, so I used small drops of pomegranate molasses instead. The sauce calls for buttermilk and Greek yogurt, but I used labneh, since we had some already. I prepared my own za’atar, as we have all the individual ingredients in our pantry. The lemon thyme, I’m thrilled to say, comes from my own community garden plot. This is the first recipe that calls for it that I’ve made since planting that lovely herb.

Lastly, the recipe calls for roasting the eggplant at 200F for 35-40 minutes. I think that must be an error. Surely it was supposed to be 200C. The publisher must have forgotten to convert to Fahrenheit. It should have been at least 400F. I waited about 35 minutes before cranking up the heat and only then did my eggplant really start to brown and cook.

Otherwise, this dish was sublime. Thanks, Heavenly Housewife, for introducing Yotam Ottolenghi’s cooking to our table!

Yotam Ottolenghi-style roasted eggplant with labneh, za’atar and pomegranate molasses

For the eggplant:

3 medium to large Italian eggplant, cut in half the long way, stems on
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tbsp fresh lemon thyme, minced; plus several sprigs lemon thyme
½ tsp pomegranate molasses
Black pepper to taste
Pinch Aleppo pepper
Kosher salt
2 tsp za’atar*

For labneh sauce:

2 cloves garlic, peeled and mashed
3 tbsp extra virgin arbequina olive oil
Kosher salt to taste
1 cup labneh
½ cup water or more

*For the za’atar :

3 tbsp sumac
1 tsp dried Greek oregano
1 tbsp pan dry-roasted sesame seeds, cooled to room temperature and ground
Pinch savory
½ tsp dried thyme
1/2 tsp kosher salt

Pre heat oven to 400F.

Place eggplant halves, cut side up, on a baking dish. Use a sharp knife to make incisions in eggplant flesh in the shape of diamonds/ lozenges without piecing the skin. Brush halves with equal amounts of olive oil. Repeat until all olive oil is absorbed. Add salt, peppers and minced thyme. Tuck some of the seasonings in the little crevices of the eggplant. Bake uncovered for 45 minutes, or until flesh is soft. Broil eggplant for few minutes towards the end, just to give them some color. Remove from the oven and let cool to room temperature.

Meanwhile prepare za’atar by mixing all ingredients together, set aside.

Place labneh in a bowl. Whisk in ½ cup of water, olive oil, salt and mashed garlic. The sauce should be fairly thin. Add more water here if needed. Set aside.

Arrange eggplant halves on a serving platter. Spoon over some labneh sauce, top with a few drops of pomegranate molasses, sprinkle za’atar over that, followed by a few flowers of lemon thyme

Store leftover za’atar in a tight container in the refrigerator for up to a month. Sprinkle it liberally on salads, rice, humus, yogurt.

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Labneh is sort of a Lebanese version of sour cream or perhaps a very creamy cream cheese. Joumana uses it to great effect on her food blog. Look here, here and here for some excellent ideas. Hegui was so inspired that he bought a large container of labneh, mostly to snack on, it seems. I used it with this quick bread as I thought the tanginess would complement the pumpkin and herbs. You can use it like sour cream in most recipes that call for it. I wonder how Polish sour soup would taste with labneh? Mmmm.

savory pumpkin bread with garden herbs and labneh

savory pumpkin bread with garden herbs and labneh

This recipe comes from cooks.com, though I’ve modified it a bit. Aside from adding dollops of labneh, I used a bit less sugar, soy milk instead of cow’s milk, and more randomly mixed in herbs from our community garden plot. In mine, I used chives, mint and sage. You can add basil and cilantro, too. I thought about Italian parsley but decided that it would overpower everything else. Next time, I intend to top the loaves with jalapeño slices for a bit of heat.

my container of labneh, here spelled labne

my container of labneh, here spelled labne

savory pumpkin bread with garden herbs and labneh

2 eggs
1/3 cup vegetable oil
½ cup soy milk
1 cup mashed pumpkin (here it was kabocha)
2 cups flour
1 tbsp baking powder
½ tsp baking soda
3 tbsp sugar
2 tbsp mixed fresh herbs
1 tsp per mini-loaf labneh

Preheat oven to 350F.

Beat eggs then mix in liquid ingredients, pumpkin and herbs. In another bowl, blend dry ingredients. Then mix into wet. I used disposable mini-loaf pans to reduce mess. If you use a regular baking dish, grease liberally. Add batter to mini-loafs just over half full. Dollop labneh in center of each mini-loaf. Bake about 50 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean.

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