Michael Pollan in conversation at the Sydney Opera House.
I love Michael Pollan. I read every word of his I find and his writing has profoundly shaped my own views. And I met him in my publishing days. He's a gentleman, as you'd expect.
So, I had a contented time listening to one of my heroes, but the family were less entranced. Not that they were not impressed by what he had to say, his easy but persuasive conversational style or the weightiness of the topics . . . but they were hungry.
Labneh with dinnerIt was cold & rainy, mid-week. We went to El-Phoenician at Walsh Bay, around the harbour from the Opera House under the giant shadow of the Bridge. It was deserted in the black streets and only one other table was taken in the restaurant.
The food was beautiful. It was so comforting to come in from the cold, order some wine, go to the loo, and then eat well-prepared dishes that happen happily to be vegetarian. I'm sure Michael would have had a lovely time with us, talking about his talk.
I was besotted with the labneh. Thick, creamy, salty. I slathered it on everything. I asked the waiter if it was made by the kitchen. He seemed puzzled by my interest, but kindly brought me a container of more luscious labneh to take home.
Yoghurt + muslin = homemade labnehThen I remembered that I have a recipe for it in Wholefood for the Whole Family by another of my heroes, Jude Blereau. And it calls for muslin, which - thanks to my attempts at poaching a quince - I now possess.
Whenever I looked at that recipe in the past, it always struck me as the kind of thing serious, confident cooks would make. But looking at it anew with enthusiastic eyes (and as a proud muslin-owner) it all seemed achievable. What if I could concoct that gorgeous creation for myself . . .
A pinch of sea salt
500 ml jar of plain, full-cream, non-homogenised yoghurt
A handful of fresh herbs (we used parsley and coriander, but thyme would be insane)
Line a seive with 4 layers of muslin. Set it over a bowl to catch the whey.
Mix the salt into the yoghurt, then spoon the youghurt into the muslin-lined seive. Leave in the fridge for 24 hours. The cheese will be soft, but still dense.
If you want a firmer cheese, fold the muslin corners over the yoghurt and weigh it down with something heavy. We placed a small plate on the muslin and a can of beans on the plate. Then walk away. It's all done for now.
When the cheese is your desired consistency, finely chop the herbs and place in a shallow bowl or on a plate. Roll the labneh mixture into small balls, then gently roll in the herb mix to coat.
Gently place in a dish and serve. Or place in a clean jar or bowl with 1-2 sliced garlic cloves and a generous grind of black pepper. Add enough olive oil to cover the labneh (loads: about 400 ml), then cover and refrigerate.
The verdictI kept sneaking a peak at the yoghurt when it was transitioning to labneh with an increasing sense of excitement. It's working!
And I was inordinately proud of the result. Five sweet little green & white balls, with a beautiful mild creamy flavour. However, my husband actually did the rolling-in-herbs, covering-with-oil stage - so all I did was line the sieve and spoon the yoghurt.
But it was still a tremendous thrill to make this recipe. It wasn't quite as lush as El-Phoenician's but still di-vine on toast with gravlax the next morning.
Later in the week I had it with a roasted vegetable ratatouille for lunch at work. Mmmm. And the oil was gorgeous to drizzle on just about everything afterwards.
And you? What's your most show-off-y creation? Do you love labneh, or have you always been put off by the notion of 'yoghurt cheese'? Let me know what you think in the comments.
More MichaelAnd if you'd like a little taste of Michael, as it were:
This was an influential story in the NY Times and an excellent introduction to his thought.
You probably know the 'Eat food. Mainly plants. Not too much' dictum. Here's where it started.
Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch
This article was published around the release of 'Julie & Julia'. It made me laugh.