Yogurt: It’s not just for breakfast anymore

By Cheryl Sternman Rule / Special to The Washington Post

When I whisk garlic into yogurt, I’m hardly a renegade. After all, the two foods team up frequently in such dishes as Greek tzatziki and Turkish ali nazik kebab, char-grilled eggplant and lamb sauced with garlicky yogurt. And garlic isn’t the only yogurt booster, of course. In Lebanon, labneh — that super-strained, lightly salted version — gets dusted with za’atar and drizzled with olive oil, no sugar bowl in sight. In South Asia, roasted cumin is as common a feature in the region’s raitas as it is in its cooling, savory lassis.

After years of sugaring our yogurt and teaming it not just with sweet fruit but also with actual candy (have you been to a frozen yogurt shop lately?), we Americans are finally waking up to what the rest of the world has known for eons: that yogurt needn’t be sweet to appeal. It can taste salty, or spicy, or garlicky, or just plain sour, like the fermented milk that it is. It can taste, in other words, like yogurt.

Niko Adamopoulos thinks Washingtonians are ready for an unmasked, complex-tasting yogurt made from cow’s, sheep’s and goat’s milk combined. Adamopoulos, who is Greek by birth but was raised in Florida, and his wife, Oana (who hails from Romania), run the Mediterranean Way, a bi-level gourmet shop in Washington’s Dupont Circle neighborhood that sells olive oil, balsamic vinegar and other staple ingredients from small producers in Greece, Italy and elsewhere across that region. In March, the couple began importing fresh Greek yogurt from a fourth-generation yogurt producer in Kastoria, a Byzantine town in northern Greece.

In mid-March, Adamopoulos doled out small samples of the new product for his customers to try. His two-week supply ran out in a day and a half. “Nine out of 10 people who were trying it were buying it, which is unlike any other product we sample in the store,” he said. “I was shocked. I mean, I knew it was good, but it’s been overwhelming.” He has since scaled up his imports to meet the demand.

And that’s just the Mediterranean, one region among many in the world where yogurt’s role is both crucial and expansive.

In Mongolia, many families hang and strain their yogurt until it hardens into a solid mass. Those solids are then pressed, cut and left to dry in the open air, a process that makes the nutrient-dense food completely portable — crucial for those who lead nomadic lives. Yogurt vodka is also a common celebration drink, especially among men.

In many countries, yogurt is offered without any embellishment whatsoever. It’s an elemental component, presented on the table in as straightforward a manner as a salad or a loaf of bread. When Mollie Katzen, the celebrated Berkeley, California-based cookbook author, lived on a kibbutz in Israel in the late 1960s, she said yogurt was present every time a dairy meal was served. “There were eggs,” she said, “and there was yogurt. It was a basic food group, a basic sustenance. It was real.” Today, Katzen calls plain yogurt “the perfect food.”

My own recent visit to Israel (I was there in 2012) bears that out. Israeli hotels are famed for their sprawling breakfast buffets, and big bowls of plain yogurt — sometimes fluid but often strained into labneh — always feature prominently.

At the charming Pausa Inn, the proprietor laid out a spread teeming with fresh fruit, crisp vegetables, pliable flatbreads and a bowl of yogurt capped with a shimmering pool of bright lemon vinaigrette. Sweeping a pita triangle through that combination was more energizing, more bracing, than the big hit of caffeine I sipped alongside.

Here in the United States, we’re beginning to follow suit, slowly but surely, at least in major cities. In New York, for example, you’ll find shallot yogurt from a small company called the White Moustache, whose owner has Persian roots, and a lightly salted yogurt (in Original and Tangy flavors) from Sohha Savory Yogurt, whose co-owner hails from Lebanon.

The grocery store dairy aisle might soon reflect that shift as well. According to a 2014 report by market research firm Mintel, “While the majority of leading yogurt flavors are sweet, the spread of savory offerings at foodservice and retail may portend the next shift in the category.” Examples include not only Sohha and the White Moustache but also Dannon’s Oikos Greek Yogurt Dips in French onion, cucumber dill, roasted red pepper and vegetable herb, and Blue Hill Yogurt’s vegetable-flavored varieties such as parsnip and beet. This evolution of the category, the report states, both expands the times of day when consumers turn to yogurt (beyond breakfast, in other words) and attracts potential new buyers.

But don’t worry: Your favorite strawberry, blueberry and other fruit-flavored yogurts won’t be disappearing anytime soon. Of the top 10 yogurts and yogurt drinks launched between 2010 and 2014, seven were fruit-flavored, with plain (at number 3), vanilla (number 4) and honey (number 9) filling out the ranks.

In the report, Mintel food and drink analyst Beth Bloom writes: “The largest percentage of yogurt and yogurt drink users do so for health reasons. Some 44 percent say they use products in the category because they are healthier than other options.”

Whether for its high protein content (with Greek yogurt and Icelandic skyr especially rich sources), considerable calcium or health-promoting probiotics — whose wide-ranging benefits are increasingly well-documented but still coupled with perhaps overly fervid marketing — yogurt will continue to dominate the snack aisle as a worthwhile option for those who seek a readily available source of nutrients and energy.

That yogurt is finally getting its due for its unparalleled versatility in the savory realm is a welcome development, whether it’s mixed into rice to finish an Indian meal, whisked into dips sprinkled lightly with sumac or napped over fish, meat or vegetables.

I, for one, couldn’t be more pleased.

Beef-Stuffed Swiss Chard Rolls With Yogurt Sauce

Makes 10 rolls

11/2 C plain whole-milk or low-fat yogurt (not Greek)

10 lg Swiss chard leaves

2 tsp extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 med onion, cut into small dice

2⁄3 C water, plus 1 TBS for the filling, if needed

1 lb lean ground beef

1 TBS tomato paste

4 tsp sweet paprika

1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

13/4 tsp kosher salt

3/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper

Place the yogurt in a medium bowl and keep it at room temperature until ready to serve.

Swish the chard leaves in a large bowl of cool water to clean them; pat dry. Fold each leaf in half lengthwise and slice out the bottom and central portions of the stem, working from the center of the leaf downward. (You want the two halves to stay connected up top.) When unfolded, each leaf should look like an upside-down V. Finely chop the stems you just removed.

Make the filling: Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Cook the chard stems and onion until tender, about 10 minutes, adding 1 tablespoon of water if the skillet runs dry. Add the beef, tomato paste, 3 teaspoons of the paprika, the cinnamon, 11/2 teaspoons of the salt and 1/2 teaspoon of the pepper. Increase the heat to medium-high; cook until the beef loses its raw look, breaking it up as it cooks, about 5 minutes. Remove it from the heat.

Work with one chard leaf at a time. Lay a leaf on a work surface, positioning it with the slit ends at the top, so it now resembles a regular V. The bumpy side of the leaf should face down and the concave part should face up. Scoop 1/4 to 1⁄3 cup of filling onto the leaf near the bottom, then tightly roll it up burrito style, pushing in the sides and forcing the slit top together as you encase the filling. Tuck back any filling that pops out. Transfer the packet to the skillet, placing it seam side down next to the remaining filling. Repeat with the remaining chard leaves and filling.

Sprinkle the remaining 1 teaspoon of paprika and the remaining 1/4 teaspoon each of salt and pepper into the remaining 2⁄3 cup of water; pour it into the skillet around the rolls. Bring the liquid barely to a boil over medium heat, then cover the skillet, reduce the heat to medium-low and cook until the rolls are tender, 20 to 25 minutes.

Use a slotted spoon to transfer the rolls to a platter. Whisk the yogurt vigorously, then spoon it over the rolls. Serve right away.

Raisin-Poppy Seed Flatbreads With Cardamom-Honey Butter

Makes 8 servings

For the cardamom-honey butter

6 TBS (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 TBS honey

1/4 tsp ground cardamom

Pinch kosher salt

For the flatbreads

1/4 C golden raisins, coarsely chopped

1/4 C warm water (about 100 degrees)

21/4 tsp (1 packet) active dry yeast

1/2 C plain low-fat or whole-milk yogurt (not Greek), at room temperature

1/4 C honey

1 /2 C all-purpose flour, plus more as needed

3/4 C whole-wheat flour

3 TBS poppy seeds

1 TBS kosher salt

2 to 4 TBS coconut oil, melted, for brushing (may substitute ghee)

For the cardamom-honey butter: Whisk together the butter, honey, cardamom and salt in a small bowl until smooth. Cover and let it sit at room temperature.

For the dough: Place the raisins in a small bowl; cover with just-boiled water. Let sit until needed.

Meanwhile, pour the 1/4 cup of warm water into a mixing bowl. Sprinkle with the yeast, swirl with a fingertip to moisten and let stand for 5 minutes, until foamy. Add the yogurt and honey, whisking until the latter dissolves.

Lightly flour a work surface.

Drain the raisins, reserving the liquid; pat dry. Add them to the yeast mixture along with the all-purpose flour, whole-wheat flour, poppy seeds and salt, stirring to form a dough. (If the dough is too dry to come together, add a few teaspoons of the reserved raisin liquid.) Turn the dough out onto the floured work surface and knead until smooth, 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer to a greased bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm spot for 2 hours, until slightly puffed. (The dough will not double.)

Return the dough to the floured surface and cut it into 8 equal wedges. Working with one wedge at a time (keep the rest covered), roll it into a ball, then use a rolling pin to roll it into a round that’s 6 inches in diameter.

Heat a cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. After a minute or two, once a drop of water on the skillet sizzles and evaporates, brush the skillet with a little of the oil. Place the dough round at the center; cook until the underside is golden brown in spots, 1 to 2 minutes. Brush the top with a little oil, then turn the flatbread over and cook for 1 to 2 minutes, until browned on the second side; adjust the heat as needed to keep the flatbread from getting too browned.

Transfer the flatbread to a clean kitchen towel; wrap to keep it warm. Repeat the cooking, brushing with oil as needed, to cook all the flatbreads. Stack them on top of each other and keep them wrapped in the towel as you work.

Serve warm, with the cardamom-honey butter.

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