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Dip into labneh for hummus alternative

Amid all the dietary trends of recent years — “Paleo,” “keto,” “raw vegan” and others — the proliferation of a dairy-aisle staple has created some of the most significant mass-marketing confusion.

Yogurt is just now experiencing some sales decline after years of growth, according to a recent story from the Washington Post, which appeared in the current Mail Tribune food section (see the e-edition). The waning enthusiasm for yogurt could be related to the popularity of vegan and other dairy-free diets. But it’s also likely a product of the overwhelming number of yogurt types and varieties.

Icelandic, Bulgarian, Australian are just a few of the yogurt types, along with Greek, that the Post cited in its story. What many international countries share in common is the practice of straining the whey from yogurt to make it thicker and useful beyond eating with a spoon.

I’ve never quite understood the fuss around Greek yogurt, which is simply yogurt that has been well-strained. I achieve almost the same texture from Nancy’s plain, whole-milk yogurt by allowing the whey to pool in depressions where I’ve dipped in a spoon and pouring it off, rather than stirring it back in. After a few days, you’ve got a thicker yogurt than you had originally.

Yogurt that has been “strained to within an inch of its life,” in the words of chef and writer James DeWan, is the Middle Eastern dairy product known as labneh. Think of labneh as soft cheese, one that’s eaten as a dip in the manner similar to hummus. Sprinkle it with a variety of herbs, spices, nuts and other flavorings, and you have an appetizer or snack that’s a welcome change from hummus, which let’s face it, has been even more overexposed, perhaps, than yogurt.

Labneh can be purchased in a number of grocery stores, or it can be easily produced in the home kitchen from plain, all-natural yogurt of any brand or variety. Just verify that there are no artificial ingredients or thickeners in it. Patience with the draining process determines how thick labneh comes out. Save the whey and use it to impart tartness in smoothies, sauces, dressings and soups. Here is DeWan's recipe from the Chicago Tribune.

Labneh

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 cups plain Greek yogurt (with no artificial ingredients or thickeners)

Extra-virgin olive oil, as needed

Line a colander or mesh strainer with a couple layers of cheesecloth; set over a bowl large enough to hold it steady.

Stir the salt into the yogurt and scrape directly onto cheesecloth. Bring cheesecloth corners together and twist or tie them together.

Set bowl containing strainer with cheesecloth and yogurt in refrigerator for 24 to 72 hours. (Longer draining time makes stiffer and drier labneh.)

After draining, squeeze bag gently to release any more liquid. Serve labneh immediately (see below) or store refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 3 or 4 days. Alternately, roll labneh into 2- to 3-inch balls and place on a sheet pan. Cover with a clean towel and refrigerate overnight to firm up a bit. After labneh balls have firmed up, refrigerate them, submerged completely in extra-virgin olive oil in an airtight container. They will keep up to 2 months.

Labneh can be eaten plain with bread (pita), bagels or chips, or it can be used on sandwiches and burgers or stirred into soups and stews as you would sour cream. Flavorings can be mixed in to taste or sprinkled over the top of fresh labneh along with extra-virgin olive oil. Or labneh balls can be rolled in these ingredients before storing in oil.

For fresh labneh, spread it in a thick circle on a plate. Sprinkle with one or more of the following: fresh minced herbs, dried or fresh mint, sumac, za’atar, smoked paprika, black pepper, crushed pistachios, minced garlic, or any other flavoring ingredients you like. Drizzle with a generous amount of extra-virgin olive oil and serve immediately.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Tribune News Service photo