Seasonal Cooking with Rita Calvert~The Local Cook 

Last year Laura Riddle and I gave a “Cheese Making You Can Master at Home” workshop at Homestead Gardens in Davidsonville, MD. I’m going to revisit the especially popular Labneh cheese because it is so simple and you can substitute it for chevre or feta in many recipes.

Labneh is made by easily straining yogurt to your desired consistency-you have control of the texture. Spring is an opportune time to make this cheese from local cow, goat or sheep yogurt because the milk which makes the yogurt often reflects the terroir of the animals environment. You make pick up some nuances such as spring grasses, rain and flowers.

I’ve included two recipes inspired by Organic Gardening where I have traded chevre for homemade Labneh and "tweaked" a bit with spectacular results.

Fresh Cheese to Make at Home From Your Local Farmer’s Yogurt

As we come to appreciate the special products made with tender loving care from our farmers, we learn there are simple elegant items we can make at home without a lot of special equipment. Fresh cheeses with milk and yogurt from your local farmer are straightforward in a rustic sense.

“Fresh cheeses,” the catchall term for unripened, rind-free cheeses that vary from airy toppings to spreadable creams to molded forms. These cheeses are elegant and real in a primitive sense. To name a few; chevre, fromage blanc, Labneh, mascarpone, paneer, quark, queso fresco, ricotta.

Labneh Cheese 

I like to look at the cultures of origin for this tangy cheese; that would be the Mediterranean and Arab countries where fresh yogurt is a staple. I used yogurt from a local farmer and try to find that, if you can. Otherwise go the store bought route, but make sure a get a pure, quality yogurt without the gums added.

  • 1-2 quarts fresh yogurt
  • ½ teaspoon unrefined salt per quart of yogurt (such as sea salt)
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Fresh herbs (optional

Set your sieve or colander above a bowl to catch the whey. You can also use a coffee Melitta style funnel with natural coffee filters if you are making a smaller of labneh. Fold the cheesecloth into quarters and set it inside the sieve.

Mix yogurt with unrefined sea salt and pour the yogurt and salt mixture into the sieve lined with cheesecloth.

The initial straining will happen quickly as the bulk of the liquid and some of the yogurt itself will strain through the cloth and sieve into the bowl.

After the initial straining (about 20 minutes), gradually and carefully fold the ends of the cheesecloth in toward the center and twist them gently into a tight package of yogurt that can easily hang from a hook.

Tie the package together with a rubber band and hang it from a hook, placing the bowl beneath to catch any dripping whey. If you do not have a hook set up, you can tie off the package and leave it in your strainer; empty the whey as the bowl fills. Hanging from a hook speeds up the straining process. Let it hang for at least 12 hours up  to 24 hours.   The longer you hang the yogurt, the thicker your labneh will be.

After your yogurt has reached desired thickness, remove it from the hook and gently take off the cheesecloth.  The yogurt should be smooth and thick.

You can store the yogurt in small mason jars in the refrigerator or store them in olive oil with herbs.

To make Labneh balls, roll about tablespoonful into small walnut-sized balls. If you want the cheese a bit firmer, place the labneh balls on racks lined with clean paper towels and let air for about 3-6 hours. Gently place them into a container with a lid with fresh herbs and fresh garlic.  Cover them with oil, add the lid; refrigerate.

Bitter Greens With Lebnah, Cashews and Kiwi

Serves 4

The tang of labneh and sweet kiwi balance out bitter greens for a beautiful and refreshing salad. Keep the dressing refrigerated in a covered container for up to 5 days. Bring to room temperature before using.

  • 3 tablespoons (3 ounces) labneh, plus extra to crumble on top
  • 1 tablespoon olive or walnut oil
  • 3 tablespoons milk
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 2 large heads belgian endive, leaves separated and cut into 1" diagonal slices
  • 1 large bunch watercress, chopped
  • 4 tablespoons toasted cashews
  • 2 kiwi, peeled and cut into 1/2 moons
  • 1/4 cup thinly sliced radish

Alternate

Substitute 4 cups mixed baby spring greens or 1 large bunch arugula for the Belgian endive.

In a blender, combine the cheese, oil, 2 tablespoons of the milk, the lemon juice, salt, and pepper. Process until thickened and creamy, adding up to another tablespoon milk if too thick.

Place the endive and watercress in a large salad bowl, add the cheese mixture, and toss to combine. Divide among 4 plates. Sprinkle with the cashews, kiwi,  radish and crumble of labneh.

Spring Pea Soup with Pesto-Lebnah Tartines

Serves 4-6

For pesto:

  • 2 large garlic cloves, roughly chopped
  • 1/2 cup toasted pine nuts
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese (about 11/2 ounces)
  • 4 cups packed fresh basil leaves, washed well
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

For soup:

  • 1 3/4 cups reduced-sodium chicken broth
  • 1 small onion, finely chopped
  • 1 medium carrot, thinly sliced
  • 1 medium stalk of celery, thinly sliced
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt, plus extra to season
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 pound frozen peas (3 3/4 cups

For tartines:

  • 6 slices of fresh baguette
  • 3 ounces soft, fresh lebnah

To make pesto:

Pulse garlic in a food processor until finely chopped, then add nuts, cheese, a large handful of basil, and pepper and process until chopped. Add remaining basil one handful at a time, pulsing after each addition, until finely chopped. With motor running, add oil and blend until incorporated.

Reserve 5 tablespoons of pesto for the soup and tartines. The remaining pesto can be stored, covered with a thin layer of olive oil, in the refrigerator for up to a week.

To make soup:

In a medium saucepan, bring chicken broth and 2 cups water to a simmer. Add onion, carrot, celery, salt, and pepper and simmer, covered, until vegetables are tender, about 6 minutes.

Add peas and simmer, uncovered, until peas are bright green and tender, about 3 minutes. Stir in 4 tablespoons of the pesto, then puree soup in two batches in a blender until smooth. Season to taste with salt.

To make tartines:

Spread labneh on baguette slices, top with a dollop of the remaining 1 tablespoon of pesto, and serve with the soup.

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