My enthusiasm for yoghurt comes, I think, from my childhood. We spent three or four months in this same house every year, buying most of our food from the same small town nearby, where the Wednesday market is still the highlight of the week. Twenty five years or so ago, eating yoghurt was not a habit that had grabbed the Brits, whereas in France it was in full swing. Le yaourt was considered very good for the health, and it tasted tres bon, particularly with a dollop of homemade jam.
If truth be told, there's now a much better selection of natural yoghurts to choose from in your average British supermarket than there is here. Low fat, very low fat, full fat, creamy, set or runny, bifidus, goat's milk and, to my mind, the kings of them all, the Greek sheep's milk and strained yoghurts.
You can easily make your own (boil a couple of pints of milk, then cool to blood temperature, stir in two tablespoons of 'live' yoghurt, cover and leave in a warm place overnight), but it hardly seems worth the bother these days. Your time would be better spent making thick, rich strained yoghurt: line a sieve with a double layer of muslin and spoon in plenty of good- quality yoghurt, gather up the ends, knot with a piece of string and suspend over a bowl or the sink, allowing the whey to drain.
After 4-6 hours the strained yoghurt is thick enough to use as a soft, creamy cheese, maybe livened up with some chopped spring onions, garlic and a generous helping of chopped parsley, chervil and tarragon. Delicious spread on bread.
Leave it for 12 hours or so and you end up with what is known as lebne in the Middle East. The consistency should be firm enough to mould, either into little cheese shapes that you can roll in toasted sesame seeds, crushed peppercorns or chopped herbs, or into balls that can be preserved in olive oil, with the addition of a few flavourings, such as garlic, chilli or sprigs of thyme.
Unstrained or slightly strained yoghurt can, of course, form the basis of many simple sauces and dips, the most obvious being the Greek tzatziki, great on its own with warm pitta bread, but also a good partner for grilled fish or lamb. For this, dice cucumber finely, salt and leave to drain for an hour. Rinse and dry before stirring into the yoghurt along with crushed garlic, a hint of vinegar if needed, salt and pepper. As a replacement for cream in fruit fools and gelatine-set fruit creams, the thicker Greek yoghurts are unbeatable.
When it comes to cooking proper, by which I mean heating, yoghurt cannot be substituted directly for cream as it has a tendency to curdle - not a pretty sight. There are methods for stabilising yoghurt, but I have never found any of them particularly satisfactory. If flour and/or eggs are involved in the mixture (as in a quiche filling), then you are usually on safe ground, though if overcooked, the end result may be rubbery.
The richer and creamier the yoghurt, the more stable it is in cooking, so always go for the luxury end of the market if in doubt. They taste nicer in any case.
This heavily herbed, yoghurt cheese comes from Margaret Shaida's superb book The Legendary Cuisine of Persia (Lieuse Publications, pounds 19), which this week won the Glenfiddich Food Book award. The recipe is thought to come from ancient Assyria. Eat it thickly spread on crusty bread, as the first part of a meal or a cheese course, or use as a sandwich filling.
Ingredients: 2oz (60g) mixed, finely chopped fresh herbs, mint, dill, chives, coriander and/or parsley
4oz (120g) strained yoghurt
2oz (60g) fetta cheese
2oz (60g) unsalted butter
Preparation: Blend the yoghurt, cheese, and butter together, then mix in the chopped herbs and a little salt if needed.
Potato & Cauliflower Curry
From India comes a host of recipes in which yoghurt is used as the basis of a sauce. It is heated thoroughly and survives; as far as I can tell, this is due to the method of adding the yoghurt gradually, and the effect of mixing it with the ground coconut. Here the combination makes a fragrant vegetable curry with an intimation of sourness.
Ingredients: 10oz (300g) small new potatoes, or waxy salad ones
10oz (300g) cauliflower florets
4 green cardamom pods
1tbs coriander seeds
1/2 tbs cumin seeds
2 dried red chillis, deseeded and broken into pieces
4tbs desiccated coconut
1 scant tsp grated fresh ginger
8fl oz (200ml) Greek-style thick yoghurt
1 1/2 oz (45g) butter
2tbs sunflower oil
1 small onion, grated
1oz (30g) toasted flaked almonds
1tbs chopped coriander leaves
Preparation: Boil potatoes in their skins until just tender, but no more. Remove skins, and cut in half. Steam or boil the cauliflower until barely cooked. Drain well.
Split the cardamom pods and extract the black seeds. Mix with coriander and cumin seeds. Dry fry in a heavy pan over a high heat until they smell of incense. Tip into a bowl. Dry fry the chilli and then the coconut and mix with the spices. Cool, then grind to a powder and mix with the ginger and yoghurt.
Melt the butter with the oil and fry the potatoes and cauliflower briskly until patched with brown. Set aside. Add the onion to the fat and fry until golden brown, then stir in the yoghurt mixture a tablespoon at a time. Cook, stirring for 2 minutes, then stir in 2tbs water, followed by the potatoes and cauliflower. Stir until piping hot, and then serve sprinkled with almonds and coriander leaves.
Marinated Lamb Chops
The natural acidity of yoghurt works as a tenderiser for meat. After just an hour, the effect is minimal, but the chops will still gain in flavour. If you can leave them for 24 hours or, better still, 48 (covered, and in the fridge), then you will really notice the difference.
Ingredients: 4 lamb chops
Marinade: 1/4 pint (150ml) yoghurt
1tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1tbs finely chopped parsley
1 clove garlic, crushed
salt and pepper
Preparation: Mix the marinade ingredients and smear over the lamb chops. Leave for at least an hour and far longer if possible - up to 48 hours. Grill under a medium heat until browned and just cooked, but still pink at the centre - about 5 minutes each side. Alternatively, fry them in a little oil until cooked.
Yoghurt Mango & Lime Fool
This is a pleasingly exotic fool that pairs the turpentine sweetness of mangoes with the sourness of yoghurt. The crowning glory is the tangle of lightly candied lime zest. Later on in the summer, adapt the method to peaches or strawberries (crushed with a fork and stirred in, rather than processed), replacing lime with orange.
Ingredients: 1 lime
4oz (120g) castor sugar
1/2 pint (300ml) Greek yoghurt
Preparation: Pare the green zest from the lime and shred finely. Blanch in boiling water for 2 minutes, then drain. Put the sugar in a pan with 4fl oz (100ml) water and bring up to the boil, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Add the lime zest and simmer for 10-15 minutes until translucent. Scoop out the zest and reserve the syrup.
Peel the mangoes and cut the flesh into chunks. Process or liquidise, with the yoghurt, the juice of half the lime, and two tablespoons of the syrup. Taste and add more syrup or lime juice if you think it needs it. Pile into 6 individual glasses or small bowls. Chill for at least half an hour. Just before serving scatter with the threads of candied zest.