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Cooking with yogurt

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With so many uses, yogurt is indispensable in the kitchen
Baked eggs with Spinach, Yogurt and Sumac can be a rustic brunch or dinner. (Gretchen McKay/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/TNS)
Cardamom is a spice that can be used in both sweet and savory dishes. One use is in this yogurt spiced chicken. (Lynden Steele/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/MCT)
Jyotsna Jaigai adapted this curry potato salad from a recipe on the Web site www.food52.com. (Todd Sumlin/Charlotte Observer/MCT)

A recent weatherproofing project at my house got an unlikely boost from Nancy’s yogurt.

The brand’s containers stepped in for plastic stripping that my partner and I were stapling over some plastic sheeting. Running out of the former, we risked the impending rain’s interference with our progress.

“Ugh! I don’t want to go back to Lowe’s,” my partner lamented. “Let’s rummage around in our plastic recyclables and see what might work. Maybe we could cut up a milk jug or something.”

“Nancy’s containers!” I exclaimed. “They’d be the right thickness and flexibility if we cut them into strips.”

I fetched the stash from the garage, at least a half-dozen half-gallon tubs that local curbside recycling, excepting Ashland and Talent, hasn’t accepted for several years. It’s been even longer since local food co-ops with bulk sections started declining customer donations of washed yogurt containers for reuse.

“What do we do with all these containers?” I had been asking my partner, who single-handedly can consume a half-gallon of yogurt in less than two weeks.

The quart containers I hoard for freezing homemade stock and soup. But the half-gallons are unwieldy in the freezer and usually larger portions than I need or want to thaw.

Winterizing our pergola, however, proved the food-grade plastic’s versatility. I simply used scissors to cut 1-inch-wide strips in a spiral around the container’s circumference. The remaining lids, I told my partner, make great liners under outdoor pots to keep them from staining concrete. Nancy’s own website invites customers to share how they repurpose its yogurt containers and to sign up for recycling events in Eugene.

Any and all dairy brands generate unwanted containers where consumers are challenged to recycle them. I champion Nancy’s because it’s my family’s staple and an Oregon original since 1970, when it became the country’s first commercial yogurt containing live probiotics. The brand went on to become an icon of the natural foods movement.

My family’s first Nancy’s experience coincided with interest in the “blood type diet,” popularized in the 1990s. While I haven’t been faithful to all the diet’s tenets, I retain an almost exclusive preference for Nancy’s whole milk “honey” yogurt, so lightly sweetened that it doubles for plain in just about any context.

Beyond breakfast, plain yogurt has numerous uses for creative cooks — in dressings and sauces, as a meat rub or marinade, and for baking just about anything that might call for buttermilk. It’s indispensable in dishes influenced by the cuisines of India and the Middle East. You can’t do that with sweetened, fruit-flavored yogurt.

Why not keep both yogurt types on hand? Go ahead, but don’t kid yourself that flavored yogurt essentially is plain yogurt with fruit — or vanilla is somehow virtuous.

That’s because there’s a dirty little secret in the yogurt industry, which has carefully cultivated its health-food image. The vast majority of flavored yogurts have so much sugar, they’re practically dessert.

Don’t believe it? Compare the added sugars on a container of vanilla yogurt to those on a container of vanilla ice cream. Umpqua vanilla bean ice cream actually has 1 less gram of added sugar than The Greek Gods honey-flavored Greek yogurt in the same 2/3 cup serving. Nancy’s honey yogurt has about half that amount.

So regardless of brand, choose yogurt for its calcium, potassium, protein, zinc and vitamins B6 and B12 — not sugar. Then maximize plain yogurt’s potential by incorporating it into your cooking. If these recipes aren’t enough inspiration, check out the ones at nancysyogurt.com/recipes/

Baked Eggs with Spinach, Yogurt and Sumac

2 tablespoons salted butter, melted

Big handful baby spinach leaves

8 large eggs

1/3 cup plain Greek yogurt

1 tablespoon grated sweet onion

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste

4 slices good bread, for toasting

Ground sumac, for garnish

Arrange rack in center of oven preheated to 375 degrees. Set a large kettle of water to boil.

Generously brush 4 (6-ounce) ramekins with some of the melted butter. Line bottom of each dish with a quarter of the baby spinach. Crack 2 of the eggs into each dish.

In a small bowl, whisk the yogurt, onion and salt with 1 tablespoon water to make a sauce similar in consistency to heavy cream.

Spoon a couple tablespoons of sauce over egg whites in each dish, avoiding yolks so they will stay a lovely bright yellow. Season each egg with a pinch of salt.

Place ramekins on a 2-inch-deep baking dish and place dish in preheated oven on center rack. Fill pan with boiling water to reach halfway up sides of egg dishes, taking care not to get any water in eggs. Bake eggs for about 15 to 17 minutes, or until whites are cooked and yolks are still bright yellow and jiggle when shaken. Toward end of baking time, toast and butter the bread.

Remove baking dish from oven and carefully remove each ramekin from hot water, drying off ramekins. Drizzle eggs with more melted butter and dust with the sumac. Serve immediately, placing each hot ramekin on a plate with buttered toast. Makes 4 servings.

Recipe adapted by Tribune News Service from “Rose Water & Orange Blossoms: Fresh & Classic Recipes from My Lebanese Kitchen” by Maureen Abood (Running Press, April 2015, $30).

Yogurt Spiced Chicken

1 whole chicken, cut up, or 3 to 4 pounds of chicken pieces

1 cup plain yogurt

1/2 teaspoon allspice

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg (preferably freshly ground)

1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom

Salt and pepper, to taste

Pat the chicken pieces dry with paper towels.

In a large bowl, combine the yogurt, allspice, nutmeg and cardamom. Add chicken pieces and mix until chicken is thoroughly coated. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

Arrange grill for indirect heat or preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Knock or brush off as much yogurt marinade as you can. Liberally sprinkle both sides of chicken with the salt and pepper.

If using a grill, place chicken skin-side-down on grate away from coals or flames; close lid. Cook white meat for 25 to 30 minutes, turning once. Cook dark meat for 45 to 55 minutes, turning once.

If using an oven, heat a grill pan or heavy, ovenproof skillet very hot on stovetop. Spray with nonstick spray (or add a little oil), then place chicken skin-side-down onto pan. Cook until seared and brown, but don’t let it burn, for about 2 to 3 minutes. Flip chicken and place pan in preheated oven. Cook white meat for 25 minutes or until done; cook dark meat for 45 minutes or until done.

Makes 4 servings.

Curry Potato Salad

2 pounds Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and cut in 1/2-inch dice

Salt and pepper, to taste

3 tablespoons canola oil

1 tablespoon ground cumin

1 tablespoon ground coriander

1 teaspoon turmeric

1 teaspoon red chile powder

1 small or 1/2 medium red onion, peeled and minced (about 1 cup)

2 cups Greek-style plain yogurt

6 tablespoons lemon juice, or more for a thinner, tangier dressing

2 cups frozen peas, rinsed to thaw

2 tablespoons minced cilantro (optional)

Place the potatoes in a pot, cover with water and bring to boil. Cook for 10 to 15 minutes, until fork-tender. Remove from heat and drain, leaving potatoes in pot. Sprinkle with the salt and pepper and leave in pot until slightly cooled.

Heat the canola oil in a small skillet over medium-low heat. Add the cumin, coriander, turmeric and chile powder and cook for about 5 minutes. Add the onion and continue cooking until onion is soft, for about 10 minutes.

In a large serving bowl, stir together the yogurt, lemon juice and onion mixture. Add cooked potatoes, the peas and cilantro; mix gently to combine. Refrigerate for 1 hour or up to 24 hours. Serve cold or at room temperature. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

— Recipe from Jyotsna Jaigai, courtesy of the Charlotte Observer.

Reach freelance writer Sarah Lemon at thewholedish@gmail.com.