Summer grains and spreads inspired by the Middle East
Once a week, usually on Saturday, I make labneh. I stir a teaspoon of sea salt and a little lemon juice into a tub of yogurt, pour it into a sieve I have lined with muslin and let it quietly drip overnight into a bowl. The next morning there is a pool of the milky whey that has seeped drop by drop through the cloth, and a snow-white parcel of curds firm enough to spread.
Making labneh is cheaper than buying it. Most people use a large tub of natural yogurt, not the strained variety, and salt. I squeeze in a little lemon juice, too, for the extra smack of acidity it brings. Poised between cream cheese and yogurt, this is my go-to spread for the summer.
The habit came from trips to the Middle East, where dishes of labneh greeted this early riser, together with sheets of warm, undulating bread and tiny glass bowls of jam. Not the proudly set stuff we excel at here, but softly set, syrupy preserves of rose, cherry and fig; jams that fall easily from the spoon. Add a wedge of watermelon and a rust-freckled apricot and I’m not sure there could be a more beautiful breakfast.
I sometimes toast sesame and pumpkin seeds and toss them over the surface of the labneh with thick, green oil. I grate cucumber into it to serve with roast aubergines, or add mint and coriander leaves and spoon it on top of warm grains, such as green wheat or brown rice. It has taken the place of crème fraîche as something to spread on torn figs or to eat with bowls of dark and bloody cherries.
It is worth considering the whey that drains from the yogurt. Use it in soup or in place of water to cook rice or, more pertinently, to replace half the stock to cook the wheat grains in the recipe below.
Freekeh with summer vegetables
Nutty, chewy grains of freekeh, the lightly toasted green wheat, are no stranger to this kitchen. This summer they have replaced rice in quick midweek suppers, boiled until almost tender, then tossed with fried courgettes and tomatoes, parsley and preserved lemon. This week, I cooked the grain in vegetable stock then tossed in crisp coins of raw beetroot and skinny carrots. We ate it with spoonfuls of seeded labneh, olive oil and herbs. Serves 4
carrots 15, young, slim
beetroots 3, young
red onions 2
olive oil 3 tbsp
freekeh (roasted green wheat) 200g
vegetable stock 500ml
bay leaves 2
cinnamon stick 1
cardamom pods 5
For the herbs:
coriander leaves a handful
mint about 20 medium-sized leaves
parsley a small bunch
Trim the carrots – I like to leave a short tuft of stems at the top – then scrub them lightly with a vegetable brush. Trim and scrub the beetroots, then slice them into thin rounds with a vegetable peeler and add to the carrots. If your beetroot is larger than a golf ball, then you may need to peel it. Peel the onions and slice them thinly. Put carrots, beetroots and onions in a small bowl and moisten lightly with a little olive oil.
Warm the remaining oil in a large pan. Rinse the freekeh in cold water in a sieve, then shake dry and add to the pan. Cook the grain for 2 minutes, stirring, then pour in the stock. Add the bay leaves and cinnamon stick, then crack the cardamom pods and scrape the black seeds into the stock.
When the stock comes to the boil, lower the heat to a simmer and cook for 20 minutes. Add the carrots, beetroot and onions to the pan and continue cooking for a further 5 minutes. Remove from the heat, cover and set aside. The grain will soak up any remaining stock and the vegetables will cook in the residual heat.
Toss the coriander, mint and parsley leaves with the freekeh and vegetables. Check the seasoning and serve with seeded labneh.
To make the labneh, line a sieve with a piece of muslin. Place the sieve over a small bowl in which to catch the whey. In a bowl stir together 500ml of natural yogurt, 1 tsp of salt and 2 tbsp of lemon juice. Put the yogurt mixture into the muslin and leave in the refrigerator overnight.
The labneh will keep for several days in the fridge.
Labneh with sesame and pumpkin seeds
I make this to accompany the wheat pilau above, but its uses are myriad. It keeps in a covered jar in the fridge for days.
pumpkin seeds 3 tbsp
black sesame seeds 2 tbsp
white sesame seeds 2 tbsp
olive oil 4 tbsp
sumac a pinch
Halve the cucumber lengthways and scoop out the seeds with a teaspoon. Using the coarse side of a grater, grate the cucumber into a sieve then suspend it over a bowl and leave to drain.
In a dry, shallow pan toast the pumpkin seeds over a moderate heat for a few minutes till fragrant. Add the sesame seeds and continue for a couple of minutes then tip the lot into the labneh.
Squeeze the grated cucumber between your hands to remove as much of the moisture as you can, then add the cucumber to the labneh. Stir everything gently together with a fork, then trickle the olive oil over the surface. Sprinkle a pinch of sumac on the top.
Serve the labneh in a bowl with the freekeh above.