Saturday, June 25, 2011

Hard to find ingredient that you totally wish you could find: Labaneh

Labne (Lab-nay) is a Middle Eastern kiefer cheese.  It has numerous spellings: labeneh, labneh, labaneh... depending on where you are.  It tastes not unlike a very light cream cheese, which about the same consistency.  It's way better for you than cream cheese, about 60 calories for two tablespoons (compared to 80 for even the tasteless low fat variety of Philadelphia), with the added benefit of live and active cultures.

Typical labne presentation (This one is from Karam in Portland, OR)
In the Middle East, it's commonly served smeared onto a flat plate, drizzled with olive oil and ordained with olives and zatar.  It is generally served with pita bread.  Raed, my significant eater, will eat it right out of the container with his finger if you give him a chance.

I can tell you that labne is available at Alhana Market in San Mateo, CA and at the Safeway on Shoreline in Mountain View, CA (by the yogurt).  If you live elsewhere, I would look for a Middle Eastern market (may be referred to as a Mediterranean market), barring that, a Halal market, barring that... Get yourself some Greek Yogurt and cheese cloth. Let the yogurt strain for at least 12 hours in the fridge, apply pressure, and you'll have something pre-tty close. It's SCIENCE!

Having labne in the house almost constantly has peaked my interest in cooking with it. It makes the most interesting and complex cream-like sauces.  I've most successfully created two sauces with it. These are them, should you want to get crazy.

Roasted Tomato Labne Sauce

2 cups labne
1 large beefeater tomato
1/2 bunch parsley
2 sprigs of mint
1 Tbs zatar (if you can't find it, it's made of equal parts sesame, sumac and thyme)
Pinch red pepper flakes
Juice of 1 lemon
2 Tbs olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

Cut the tomato into 1.4 inch slices and grill at high heat.  The tomato will fall apart almost totally, so if you've got a grill pan, go to town.  If you are lacking a grill pan, you can do this in the oven.  I would suggest placing them under the broiler.  You want the tomatoes to get a nice color to them.

Put the finished tomatoes, parsley, mint, zatar, red pepper and lemon juice in a food processor.  Drizzle in the olive oil. Marvel at how great this is.  It's really nice with some kebabs, or even as a salad dressing.  It's not thick at all... more of a dipping sauce.

Spicy Mexican Labne Sauce
(Sounds CRAZY, I know.)

1 cup labne
1/4 cup salsa, with juices drained.  If you choose to make your own salsa, I suggest you cook it for awhile.  It needs to be sort of smooshy to get the effect you're looking for.
Pinch red pepper flakes
1 tsp chili powder
2 cloves garlic, minced fine
salt and pepper to taste

I like to pour it over cooked chicken and make tacos.  The color of it is a little funky... it's sort of a strawberry pink. But it is delicious.

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