I often breezily suggest I’ll bring “nibbles” when I offer to bring a plate to a group gathering. Promptly, any notion I formerly had of what makes a good plate of appetisers leaves my mind and I am left in a mild panic, not able to think of anything remotely nibbly.
Appetisers can be a very fussy course. Regular food is shrunk into tiny portions, often featuring small bits of toast begging to be topped with dainty dollops of tasty morsels, or one food gently wrapped in another and prodded with a toothpick. I haven’t got the patience for fussy food, so finding an appetiser that I can prepare simply that tastes great and looks impressive is what my blank mind attempts to remember when the party is the next day.
Labneh is a fresh cheese popular in the Middle East. It is made by straining yoghurt to remove the whey, leaving behind a versatile ingredient with the consistency of cream cheese and the tang of yoghurt. It can be bought in good grocery stores, but it is also super easy to make at home. And, it makes a fantastic, fancy looking dip, perfect for a group of friends in need of something little to whet their appetite for lunch.
Making labneh at home requires little fuss, but it does need some forward planning. It takes about 24 hours for the whey to separate from the yoghurt, so wrapping your yoghurt in cheesecloth and setting it in a sieve over a bowl in the fridge needs to happen the day before. But that’s the extent of it. In 24 hours you’ll be left with a beautifully silky, fresh cheese that is extremely versatile.
It is worth making more than you immediately need so you can spread it thick on all types of bread: toast topped with avocado and a poached egg, a bagel with jam, rye bread with sliced cucumber. Add a dollop to the top of a gently spiced pilaf, or use it as a mayonnaise replacement in tuna or potato salad. Or simply cut up some fresh figs and serve with a generous helping of labneh and a drizzle of honey – a simple summer pleasure.
I used cow’s milk yoghurt, but according to my Twitter friends Melissa’s Kitchen and Shuki and Louisa, using sheep’s milk yoghurt is also great, especially because removing the whey also takes away that vaguely lamb-like flavour sheep’s milk yoghurt tends to carry.
For my appetiser I topped a bowl of labneh with middle eastern inspired flavours and a generous drizzle of olive oil and served it with home made pita chips, crunchy carrots and cucumber and small bowls of baby tomatoes and olives. This mini middle eastern spread was a feast on the eyes as well as a healthy, not-too-filling start to a wonderful lunch with good friends.
How to Make Labneh
Start 24 hours before you need the labneh.
My 1kg tub of yoghurt made 500g labneh.
- 1kg (or a 1 quart tub) greek yoghurt
- Good pinch of salt
- Kitchen string
- Large sieve
- Large bowl
Place sieve over a large bowl and line it with cheesecloth in a cross formation (so you have two layers of cheesecloth lining the bottom of the sieve).
Add a pinch of salt to yoghurt and stir through. Scoop yoghurt into the cheesecloth-lined sieve. Gather the edges of the cloth and tie with kitchen string to form a parcel.
With the sieve resting over a large bowl, place in the fridge and let drain for around 24 hours. The longer the yoghurt drains, the thicker the labneh consistency will be, so if you don’t mind it a little softer, overnight will do.
Gently squeeze out the excess liquid and remove labneh from cheesecloth. It should have the consistency of cream cheese.
Labneh with Pistachios, Parsley, Lemon and Sumac Dip
Toast a tablespoon or so of pistachios in a pan then chop into small pieces. Finely chop a few sprigs of parsley. Zest half a lemon.
Fill a small serving dish with labneh.
Sprinkle pistachios, parsley, zest and a pinch of sumac over the labneh. Drizzle some good quality olive oil over everything.
Serve with pita chips and crudités.
Spiced Pita Chips
- Wholemeal pita bread (as many slices as you need to feed your friends)
- Spices, enough for a decent sprinkle on each pita (see spice combination ideas below, anything in your spice rack that takes your fancy will do)
- Sea salt
- Olive oil
Preheat oven to 220C/400F.
Using a pastry brush, paint a coat of olive oil onto one side of a pita. Sprinkle with spices and salt. Place in oven for 4-5 minutes, or until lightly browned. (Watch it like a hawk, they can burn easily!).
While pita is still warm, cut into triangles. Store in an air-tight container. They’ll keep for a couple of days.
- Paprika and oregano
- Pepper, garlic salt and dried basil
- Any middle eastern inspired spice mixes. I had a packet of “Marrakech Magic” from Screaming Seeds in my spice draw which was perfect. It’s a mix of: Cumin Seeds, Coriander Seeds, Garlic, Cayenne Pepper, Cardamon Seeds, Cassia, Tumeric, Sea salt