Cheese Making, Vacation Taking [Marinated Lemon-Za’atar Labneh]

Doesn’t the idea of making your own cheese make you all sweaty and agitated and overwhelmed? No? Maybe it’s just me.

I’m planning to set aside more time to experiment this year. With any luck, I’ll be a seasoned vet in the art of Burrata, Curds, Mozzarella and maybe another few. I’m starting off simple, giving myself some time to ease into the process before going balls (pun intended?) out. 

This marinated labneh is EASY but god damn it’s delicious, too. I consider it a gateway cheese, if such a thing exists. I’ve made it once before and it was a success from the get-go so please don’t be intimidated by it in the slightest. 

We ate this cheese on top of warm black kale with roasted garlic dressing, wholegrain croutons and spicy baked chicken - a new favourite - but I’ve suggested some uses at the bottom of the page if that doesn’t sound quite right for you. 

We’re off for a week to Puerto Rico tomorrow so with any luck, I won’t be around these parts much but hopefully by the time I’m back, you’ll have a jar of this ready to go so we can virtually high five at your great success! 

We’ll do our best to bring some warmth home with us! 

Marinated Lemon-Za’atar Labneh
makes approx. 10-12 balls of cheese

If you can find za’atar at your Middle Eastern market, feel free to use that. I make mine at home because I usually have all the ingredients on hand. I’ve shared a recipe in case you’d like to make this spice blend from scratch. 


Special equipment: 
2-3 coffee filters or layers of cheese cloth
1 4-cup or 2 2-cup seal-able jars

500g tub Greek yogurt (plain, unsweetened)
zest from 1/2 large lemon (about 1/2 tbsp)
1 tbsp za’atar, recipe to follow
sea salt

2 cups good quality olive oil (I use California Olive Ranch's Arbequina)
2-4 bird chilies
2 sprigs fresh oregano
2 sprigs fresh thyme
4 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
8-10 peppercorns
pinch salt

Place your coffee filter or cheese cloth in a fine mesh sieve and place the sieve in a bowl deep enough to catch about 1 1/2 cups of liquid. Stir the yogurt, lemon zest, za’atar  and a pinch or two of salt together until combined. Pour into the lined-sieve. Place in the fridge, covered if you prefer, and let drain for 2 days. It should be slightly looser than a cream cheese consistency. 

Take the strained yogurt from the fridge and roll into balls slightly smaller than a golf ball (wetting your fingers/hands makes this somewhat less messy). Place cheese-balls into the jar(s) and add in the chilies, oregano, thyme, garlic, peppercorns and salt. Top with enough olive oil to submerge everything. Place in the fridge to marinate for 24 hours. The olive oil might solidify and that’s ok. Place the jar on the fridge door so it’s not as cold. Remove the jar a few hours before you plan to eat the cheese. 

To serve: 
spread on baguette
a few balls and some oil spooned over greens
with a cheese plate
on crostini
on pizza
served with pickles and smoked meats for sandwiches

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A Shift in Comfort [Chermoula Chicken with Toasted Almond Couscous & Coriander Yogurt]



And just like that, winter came. And liked us so much it decided to stay for 4 long months. 

As the nipping air blows into town and we wrap our bones in layers over layers like flaky croissant dough around a piece of rich Swiss chocolate, I find myself feeling a constant power struggle in the kitchen. Comfort vs. Health. Does there need to be such a decision? Can’t we have it all?



The short answer is yes! We can! But there needs to be a bit of a shift in the way you prepare and buy ingredients for your favourite comfort foods. If you love macaroni and cheese, add the cheese to a pureed cauliflower or squash base instead of the classic butter-filled bechamel and use whole wheat pasta. Take time to learn how to adjust your seasoning with herbs and spices instead of salt. It’s not only healthier, but you really learn how to use all those little jars collecting dust on the shelf. Love a gooey lasagna? Try using thin slices of eggplant to replace the noodles, or place a spoonful of meat sauce at the end of an eggplant slice and roll it up like cannelloni  There are so many simple ways to make the dishes we crave most when the temperature drops just a little bit healthier, we just need to be a bit more mindful of how we shop and what goes into our meals.



The dish I’m sharing today might not bring visions of couch-snuggling, wine drinking or cozy evening movie-watching to mind initially, but to me it’s as quintessentially comforting as a bowl of noodles and broth. The couscous with toasted almonds is surprisingly satisfying, the fiery chicken with it’s array of warm spices can take the chill out of any frigid evening, and the cooling coriander yogurt really brings everything together. All of these flavours of lemon, yogurt, coriander, paprika and cumin compliment each other so wonderfully your mouth won’t even realize you’re eating something packed with nutrition. I chopped up all the leftovers and tossed them together in a salad for lunch that I just happen to be eating RIGHT NOW. And let me tell you, if it tasted good the first day, you’re going to be blown away by day 2! And it’s lovely cold, as well.

Invite a few close friends over and serve this up family-style over the holidays. It’s a meal that’s meant to be shared and enjoyed together. And since you’ve already saved yourself a few calories, why not have an extra glass of wine with dinner? Live a little! I give you my permission.



Chermoula Chicken with Toasted Almond Couscous & Coriander Yogurt
adapted from Fork Magazine
serves 4

Ingredients:

6 sweet red peppers (if you can find the long skinny ones, those are best)
6 skinless, boneless chicken breasts

For the Coriander Yogurt
1/2 cup coriander (cilantro), minced
1 cup plain Greek yogurt
Juice + zest of 1 lemon
salt, to taste 
½ tsp fresh ground pepper

Stir all ingredients until combined. Taste for seasoning and add more if needed. Place in the fridge until ready to eat. Can be made 1 day in advance. 

For the Chermoula spice: 
Juice of 1 lemon
1 tsp whole cumin
1 tsp smoked paprika
1 small red chilli, chopped & seeds removed (substitute: ½ tsp cayenne pepper)
1 small bunch of coriander, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, peeled
Olive oil

Place all ingredients in a bullet or food processor and blend until smooth. Can be made a few days in advance and kept in the fridge until ready. 

For the couscous:
3 cups cooked couscous
1 cup toasted almond flakes or slivers
2 tbsp olive oil
Juice of 1 lemon
Salt & pepper, to taste

Stir all ingredients except for salt and pepper. Add a few pinches of salt and fresh ground pepper and taste. Add more if needed. Keep warm in a pot over low-heat on the stove, stirring every so often. 

For the Chicken and Peppers: 
In a large container with lid (or a food-storage bag), add the chicken and Chermoula spice. Squish around until the chicken is coated and place in the fridge for 3 hours up to overnight. The longer you leave it, the better the flavour the chicken will have. 

Bring a grill pan or cast-iron skillet with a couple glugs of vegetable oil to high heat until sizzling. Add the chicken and cook for 6 minutes on each side or until juices run clear. Keep the pan on the stove and remove the chicken to a plate to rest for a few minutes. Place the whole peppers, 3 at a time, on the pan and let the skin blacken and blister slightly, 3-4 minutes. Flip and let the other side blister. Alternatively, you can move your oven rack to the top ledge and cook the peppers under the broiler. Remove and slice the peppers into thin strips and place them in a serving bowl. 

Pour the couscous onto a large serving dish. Sliced the chicken and serve over the couscous. Serve with Coriander Yogurt and Grilled Peppers. 

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Me and My Salad [Cauliflower Salad with Almonds, Apricots & Fried Capers]

As I shoved the last bite of this salad into my mouth the other day, I knew I would have to share it with you all. I’ll make this short, sweet, salty and sour. 


It’s become clear that I not only have an issue with baked eggs, but cauliflower too. I can’t get enough lately. I want it all, and I want it now. This salad sort of threw itself together as I stood in the kitchen, watching it all unfold before my eyes. It was as if my brain couldn’t keep up with my hands, grabbing, tossing, mixing, and then there we were. Me and my salad. Sitting down to a lovely lunch together. 

This bad boy has it all. A gentle nuttiness from the caramelized bits of cauliflower, a pungent brininess from the fried capers, gentle heat from the almonds and a slight sweetness from the dried apricots. All this pulled together with a creamy orange-scented yogurt dressing. It might sound a bit much, but believe me when I tell you these flavours were meant to be married into one big delicious family. And then eaten by you! 



Cauliflower Salad with Almonds, Apricots & Fried Capers
serves 2 

1 large (2 small) head of cauliflower, cut into bite-sized florets
olive oil
1/3 cup raw almonds
pinch or two cayenne pepper, optional
1/4 cup capers, stems removed if necessary
small handful of dried apricot slices, diced
1/2 cup orange-yogurt dressing (recipe follows)
fresh ground pepper, to garnish

Preheat oven to 350. 
Toss cauliflower florets with 2 pinches of salt and enough olive oil and to lightly coat. Pour onto a baking sheet and bake for 10-15 minutes or until florets begin to brown around the edges. Turn florets over and bake for another 6-7 minutes until golden. 

While cauliflower cooks, put a small saucepan over medium heat and drizzle very lightly with olive oil. Add the almonds and a pinch or two of cayenne pepper, more if you like it spicier. I didn’t add salt to mine, but you can if you’d like. Let sit for 3 minutes until lightly toasted on one side. Shake the pan and let toast for another 1-2 minutes until fragrant. Remove to a paper towel lined plate to cool. 

In the same pan, add 1/3 cup olive oil and bring to med-high heat. Add the capers and let them fry until they’ve opened slightly and start to crisp up, 40-60 seconds for small capers, 1-2 minutes for large ones like I used. Remove with a slotted spoon to a paper towel lined plate to cool.

Toss the cauliflower, almonds, capers and apricots into a large mixing bowl and toss with 1/4 cup dressing. If it’s too dry, add a little more until it’s coated to your liking. Serve warm with lots of pepper and dressing on the side for those who want more. 

Orange-Yogurt Dressing
makes 1 cup

If you don’t use all the dressing, it makes a great marinade for chicken!

1 cup plain Greek yogurt
zest from 1/2 large orange
juice from 1/2 large orange
pinch salt
1/2 tbsp honey
2 tbsp olive oil
water

Mix all but the water in a small bowl. If the texture is thin enough already (it should be similar in texture to a slightly thicker buttermilk), don’t add water. If it needs to be thinned slightly, add water 1/2 tbsp at a time until texture is to your liking. Taste for seasoning and add more salt, honey or orange juice if needed.  

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Find Your Joy [Lemon-Yogurt Linguine w Arugula, Sugar Peas & Roasted Hazelnuts]



Things have been sad this week. A close loss that’s left many feeling a constant aching numbness. 

It never feels completely real - and leaves us all feeling slightly less invincible and secure of our place in life.  I’ve been through a few of these by now, and I’m familiar with the unique numbness that only a death can cause a family, their friends, and their friends friends. The hurt and pain that seems to expand as wide and long as an ocean, tremendous and gaping, filled with grief and sadness. 

My place in life, to be sure, is the mother hen. Always doting, always trying to offer comfort, whether needed or not, always acting out in hopes of a smile or even the slightest upturn of a frown. I have an unquenchable need to be needed, which can be a downfall at the best of times. I yearn to make others feel at ease, to usher away the bad thoughts and tears. Death is a hardship I am left defenseless against. It makes no mind of life plans or kindness paid. It’s ugly and mean and howls irrationally in the face of logic and love. It changes every single thing, in a mere blink.

Without being able to help or provide any lasting comfort, I’m finding myself increasingly lost. In moments of scattered thoughts, I turn to my kitchen, the only other thing that makes sense in a world of uncertain timing and premature endings. I’ve spent much time toiling in there this week, trying to make sense of life, to wrap my head around the why’s and the how’s. Of course, there will never be an answer - but it feels right to be surrounded by the beautiful ingredients, sun streaming through my dusty kitchen windows, everything placed on the counter with purpose and meaning. My kitchen is my joy. My truest happy place.

Life is far too short. Love hard and long, linger a while in the moments of happiness (and sadness), forgive quickly and find your joy, wherever it may rest.



Lemon-Yogurt Linguine with Arugula, Sugar Peas and Roasted Hazelnuts 
serves 4

A pasta made for my fellow lemon-lovers. Tangy, bright and tart balanced with peppery arugula, sweet sugar peas and a deep, toasty crunch from the roasted hazelnuts.

If I may, try to find some locally-grown arugula - it’s flavour is incomparable to that found at the super market.  

Lemon-Yogurt Sauce
1/4 cup Greek yogurt
1/4 cup olive oil
juice from 1 lemon
zest from 2 lemons
1 1/2 tsp good quality Dijon mustard
1/2 tsp salt
pinch red pepper flakes

Pasta
1/2lb linguine (I used whole wheat)
1/2 cup starchy pasta water
2 big handfuls arugula
1/3 cup hulled sugar peas
1/3 cup Roasted Hazelnuts (recipe to follow), crushed
Fresh Ground Pepper

For the Sauce: 
In a bowl, whisk the yogurt, olive oil, lemon juice + zest, Dijon, salt and a few grinds of pepper together. Set aside. 



For the Pasta: 
Cook the pasta to Al Dente according to package instructions. Before straining, reserve 1/2 cup of the starchy cooking water. Strain and return to large pot. 

Add 1/2 the pasta water to the yogurt sauce and whisk well. Pour into the pasta pot and toss well until the pasta is coated. Add the arugula, peas to the pot. Taste for seasoning, add more salt and pepper if needed. If the pasta is dry, add more of the starch water to loosen it. 

Divide the pasta among plates and garnish with the crushed hazelnuts and a drizzle of good quality olive oil. 



Roasted Hazelnuts
Preheat oven to 350° F.
In a baking pan toast hazelnuts in one layer in middle of oven 10 to 15 minutes, or until lightly colored and skins are blistered. Move nuts to a kitchen towel or paper bag and cover (or seal) for 5 minutes. Rub nuts in towel to remove loose skins (don’t worry about skins that don’t come off) and cool completely.

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(un)Comfortably Spiced (Turkish Kebabs, Pomegranate Relish, Tahini Yogurt)

 
Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve officially branched out. Not too far, now. I’m not building cakes out of mashed potatoes and meatloaf or drinking turtle’s blood sakes. Oh no, I’m not branching out that far. Maybe twigging out would be a  more appropriate phrase.  I’m just slowly poking my head out of the hole that is my culinary comfort zone.

I grew up on a fairly ’plain’ diet. Somewhat bland, typically spice-free, keep-the-flavour-to-a-dull-roar type of diet. Mashed potatoes and chicken strips, hamburger helper, pasta with jarred sauce… you know the diet I’m talking about. I should mention, in case either of my parents are reading, that this was the type of food I chose to eat. I bet my dad would have loved if I were to sit down and ask for a big plate of liver and onions, as we so often joked about as kids.

As I’ve learned to cook, and become more comfortable with different flavours and textures, I’ve tried to incorporate a bigger variety of spices, vegetables, oils and vinegars to my food. However, I’ve done so in a very comfortable way that hasn’t forced me to stray from the foods I’m used to. Until now.

Eating healthily is not always exciting or flavourful, but if you learn to use spices in place of butter and salt, you’d be surprised at how much flavour you can get out of your food without any added fat/sodium.

My best friend, Amanda, is Lebanese and comes from a family with a very dedicated and talented mother who cooks extremely health conscious, fresh, delicious meals everyday. She has a giant garden that she cooks from in summer months and tends to preserve everything the season’s bounty has provided her with. I’ve been privileged, on more than one occasion, to eat her food and have never tried anything I didn’t like. I have to say that her steak tartare is one of the best I’ve had. Full of flavour and such a nice texture. She knows how to make the best of the spices and ingredients she has.

When I saw Ana Sortun’s recipe for a middle-eastern inspired dish in this month’s Bon Appetit, I knew if there was anytime to branch out and cook a style of cuisine I was unfamiliar with, it was now.

These kebabs are good. I’m not usually a huge fan of chicken breast but when soaked in a marinade of grated onion, baharat, oil and lemon juice, it becomes moist and full of flavour. The colourful pomegranate-pistachio relish and cooling tahini-yogurt sauce were the perfect accompaniment to the perfectly spiced chicken.

 

Turkish-Style Chicken Kebabs with Pomegranate-Pistachio Relish and Tahini-Yogurt Sauce
Recipe from Bon Appetit

Baharat Seasoning
1 1/2 tablespoons dried mint 
1 tablespoon dried oregano 
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon 
1 1/2 teaspoons ground coriander 
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin 
1 1/2 teaspoons ground nutmeg

Tahini yogurt:
3 1/2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice 
1 tablespoon Baharat seasoning
1 large garlic clove, pressed 
1/2 cup plain whole-milk Greek-style yogurt 
1/4 cup tahini (sesame seed paste) 

Pomegranate Relish:
1 1/4 cups pomegranate seeds 
2/3 cup shelled unsalted natural pistachios, coarsely chopped 
1/3 cup coarsely chopped fresh Italian parsley 
2 1/2 tablespoons olive oil 
2 1/2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice 


Chicken:
1/2 cup coarsely grated onion 
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice 
2 tablespoons olive oil 
2 teaspoons baharat seasoning
4 skinless boneless chicken breast halves, each halved lengthwise, then cut crosswise into 3 pieces 

Warm pita breads  (optional)

Baharat Seasoning:
Using pestle or blunt end of wooden spoon, mash all ingredients and 1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper in mortar or small bowl 2 to 3 minutes. DO AHEAD: Can be made 1 week ahead. Cover and chill.

For tahini yogurt:
Combine lemon juice, Baharat Seasoning, and garlic in medium bowl; stir to blend. Let stand 5 minutes. Whisk in yogurt and tahini. Season tahini yogurt to taste with salt. DO AHEAD: Can be made up to 2 hours ahead. Let stand at room temperature.

For pomegranate relish: 

Mix all ingredients in medium bowl. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper. DO AHEAD: Can be made 2 hours ahead. Let stand at room temperature.


(the best way, in my opinion, to get the seeds out. Place a mesh sieve in a large bowl, cut pomegranate in half, face cut side down in your hand, rap on the back with a big wooden spoon until seeds are released. Great for anger management, too!)

For chicken:
Whisk first 4 ingredients in large bowl. Add chicken. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Marinate at room temperature at least 1 hour and up to 2 hours.

Preheat broiler. Thread 6 chicken pieces onto each skewer. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place on small rimmed baking sheet. Broil chicken until cooked through, 5 to 6 minutes per side. Arrange kebabs on platter. Serve with tahini yogurt, pomegranate relish, and warm pita breads.  

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