When Cheryl Sternman Rule and her husband, Colin, were in the Peace Corps in Eritrea in the mid-’90s, they made their own yogurt, as most locals did. The couple enjoyed it so much that they promised each other they’d continue to make it once they got home.
Of course, they didn’t.
Rule couldn’t have known it at the time, but that experience in Africa was a harbinger for what was to come years later — a book about yogurt around the world.
“Yogurt Culture: A Global Look at How to Make, Bake, Sip, and Chill the World’s Creamiest, Healthiest Food” (with photos by Ellen Silverman) comes out next week.
The collection offers plenty of great dairy dishes that could be made for Shavuot (coming up May 25), but observant readers should also be aware there are many traif dishes in the book.
Rule, who grew up in Scarsdale, New York, and has been a Bay Area resident since 2004, is behind the popular food blog “5 Second Rule.” A member of Congregation Shir Hadash in Los Gatos, she is also the author of the 2012 book “Ripe: A Fresh, Colorful Approach to Fruits and Vegetables,” with photography by Paulette Phlipot.
Rule, who lives in San Jose, has a master’s degree in education, but after a few years of working as an educational researcher, she realized she wanted to do something more creative. She attended culinary school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and began working as a recipe tester, and then once in the Bay Area started freelancing as a food writer and launched her blog, which soon garnered attention and awards.
It was Rule’s literary agent who suggested writing a book about yogurt. “The hardest part for me is coming up with ideas,” she said. “Writing comes easily to me once I have an idea.”
Rule thought of it as a small project to work on until she got to her next big idea. Little did she know the book would launch her next big idea. Now she’s started Teamyogurt.com, where she and other contributors share their favorite recipes using yogurt.
One may wonder how much there is to say about yogurt, but a look through the book will provide the answer: a lot.
While the book teaches readers how to make their own, it doesn’t chide them for using store-bought yogurt. Recipes range from fruity mix-ins to desserts, dips and savory main dishes, where yogurt is an accent.
Rule’s favorite part of researching the book was talking to people from different cultures (no pun intended) about how yogurt is used in their food traditions.
The book includes a number of recipes from Israel, which Rule visited when the Ministry of Tourism invited her on a food tour in 2012.
“It was my first time, and it was a wonderful way to see a country that had always had been on my radar, but I had never had the opportunity to go to,” she said. “To learn about it specifically through its food was fascinating.”
While she covered the visit on her blog (www.tinyurl.com/5-second-israel-blog), Rule also took detailed notes while meeting Israeli chefs and sampling their food, and some of those recipes show up in the book.
For example, one of her favorite treatments of yogurt came at a beautiful bed and breakfast called Pausa Inn in the Upper Galilee, where in addition to the fresh cheeses and fruit and other staples of an enormous Israeli breakfast, a bowl of fresh yogurt with lemon vinaigrette was served with warm pita. “The unabashed tart yogurt with the citrusy topping was the opposite of what I expected,” said Rule, who noted that she was accustomed to morning yogurt preparations with fruit, honey or another sweet element. “That simple dish really stood out to me.” She also loved and re-creates a dip from the Machneyuda restaurant in Jerusalem, where chef Uri Navon serves a dish using the tangy thickened yogurt labneh with roasted tomatoes, pistachio pesto and olive tapenade (see the recipe at www.tinyurl.com/yogurt-culture-recipe).
Rule also covers other countries where yogurt is a staple, obvious ones like Greece and India, and others less obvious, like Afghanistan and Mongolia.
Among the more interesting uses for yogurt that she learned: In Afghanistan and Mongolia, nomadic peoples dry it out to take on the go, and then suck on the yogurt or reconstitute it.
And closer to home, she shares details about some American yogurt makers, like the local (and Jewish) Straus Family Creamery.
While the book features some desserts, they represent a minority. “In most of the rest of the world, they don’t eat yogurt in sweet preparations,” said Rule. “Outside of the U.S., its savory qualities really come to the forefront. The preparations from my sources have changed my mindset and expanded the way I was using yogurt, as well.”
Alix Wall is a personal chef in the East Bay and beyond. Her website is www.theorganicepicure.com.
Excerpted from Yogurt Culture, © 2015 by Cheryl Sternman Rule. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.
Labneh with Tomatoes, Pesto, and Tapenade
Serves up to 12, fewer if you serve the spreads in stages
My inspiration for this recipe comes from a dip I enjoyed at the boisterous Jerusalem restaurant Machneyuda. There, Chef Uri Navon serves several colorful spreads in a single bowl, and the result, which resembles a painter’s palette, is both playful and renegade. I start with a base of creamy labneh, then top it with generous mounds of roasted tomatoes, pistachio pesto, and kalamata tapenade. Make each component separately (you can prepare them all ahead) and use as much as you like of each element.
You’ll want to compose only as much of this dip as you plan to serve at once. Store the remaining components separately in the fridge, and use fresh labneh for subsequent batches. The smaller amount of labneh will serve 4 to 6, the large amount 10 to 12.
FOR THE ROASTED TOMATOES
2 cups cherry tomatoes, halved
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
FOR THE PISTACHIO PESTO
1 garlic clove, smashed
¼ cup unsalted pistachios
½ cup (packed) fresh basil leaves, coarsely chopped
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
FOR THE TAPENADE
1 cup pitted kalamata olives, rinsed
1 tablespoon drained capers
¼ teaspoon anchovy paste (optional)
Extra-virgin olive oil, for drizzling (optional)
Squeeze of fresh lemon juice
¾ to 1½ cups labneh, homemade or store-bought
Warm, toasted pita wedges (see Yo!)
ROAST THE TOMATOES
Preheat the oven to 325°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment.
Lay the tomatoes cut side up on the sheet and drizzle with the oil. Sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper. Roast until collapsed, 30 to 40 minutes. Cool. (Makes 1 generous cup.)
MAKE THE PESTO
In a mini food processor, pulse the garlic, pistachios, basil, and salt until finely chopped. Add the oil a bit at a time, processing in bursts, until the pesto is emulsified. (Makes 1⁄3 cup. A little goes a long way.)
MAKE THE TAPENADE
In a mini food processor, pulse the olives, capers, and anchovy paste, if using, until paste-like. Drizzle in a touch of oil, only if desired. Season with lemon juice to taste. (Makes ¾ cup.)
SERVE. Spread the labneh in a shallow serving bowl, using the back of a spoon to make a wide indentation in the center. Dollop with distinct, heaping scoops of the roasted tomatoes, pesto, and tapenade. Serve with warm pita wedges.
Spread the labneh in a shallow serving bowl, using the back of a spoon to make a wide indentation in the center. Dollop with distinct, heaping scoops of the roasted tomatoes, pesto, and tapenade. Serve with warm pita wedges.
Because you’re making smaller portions of each element than you normally might, I highly recommend using a mini food processor. It’s the perfect size for the pesto and tapenade.
To make toasted pita wedges: Cut whole-wheat pitas into wedges. Drizzle lightly with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper, or za’atar. Bake in a preheated 400°F oven until crisp, about 10 minutes. Make more than you need, as these disappear fast.