Food For Thought: Yogurt

Many people consume yogurt for its flavor and nutritional content, though it also has health-promoting qualities. The most well known of these facts is that it is beneficial to the digestive systemÐthe live cultures in yogurt maintain a healthy balance of "good bacteria" in ones body. And these healthy bacteria can build a person's immune system, which in turn may alleviate many types of gastrointestinal problems. Interestingly, the fermentation process, which occurs naturally in yogurt making, yields a dairy product that is safe for most lactose intolerant people to consume. In addition, yogurt is said to lower blood cholesterol levels and act as an anti-carcinogenic. And most importantly, in an era of the aging baby boomer, it is reported that yogurt can actually act as a life extender. In Bulgaria, for example, which is home to one of the worlds leading yogurt consuming populations, it's not all that uncommon to live well into your 90's, or even 100 years old!Though the most common fashion in which yogurt is consumed in this country is simply plain or mixed with fruit, it is very versatile and can be used as an ingredient in soups and sauces, as a marinade, and also as a base for a healthy drink. In the former Soviet Union, for example, there is a popular yogurt product referred to as kefir, which is usually drank rather than eaten, the Mongolian version of this drink is called kummis. The main difference between these drinks and yogurt is that both kefir and kummis often have a mild alcoholic content due to its natural fermentation. Yogurt also acts as a natural spice or heat stabilizer. Thus it's no coincidence that in areas of the world where the food is often seasoned yogurt is a standard accompaniment to most foods. A dollop of cool and creamy yogurt will enhance and tame even the most fiery dishes.Yogurt is indigenous to Eastern Europe and Western Asia, and has been in existence for thousands of years. Like many foods, yogurt was undoubtedly discovered by accident. It's said that milk was originally stored and transported in hollowed gourds and animal skins; with the conditions of this primitive storage the heat of the sun naturally fermented the milk. It was an ingenious cook who first learned how to control and perpetuate the fermentation process. The thing that I'm curious about though, is how a person had the courage to eat the fermented milk once they discovered it somewhat thick and sour.It's very simple to make your own yogurt, it makes itself actually. The key is a moderate and consistent temperature, and the correct ratio of starter to milk. The bacteria needs only these few things in order to grow and multiply.Currently there are many different brands and varieties of yogurt available, but to benefit from its full healthful potential one must choose yogurt with live cultures. It will be clearly stated on the package whether or not the product in fact does contain these good bacteria-heat treated or extended shelf life varieties most likely will not contain live cultures. Yogurt will fit into almost any dietary lifestyle; it can be made or purchased in whole milk, low fat or no-fat forms. Whether you make it or buy it, eat yogurt for your health.Fresh YogurtYield: 1 quart1 quart whole milk3 tablespoons starter (plain yogurt with active cultures)In a clean non-reactive pot bring the milk to a boil, then allow to cool to 115 degrees Fahrenheit. In a medium glass or ceramic bowl, dilute the starter with 1/2 cup of the warm milk. Stir in the remaining milk and cover securely with cellophane. Wrap the bowl twice with a heavy cloth and set in a warm draft-free area. Let stand for 4-5 hours. Refrigerate the finished yogurt for at least 2 hours before serving.Labna(Fresh Yogurt Cheese)Line a large colander with cheesecloth. Pour in fresh yogurt, pull the ends of the cheesecloth together to form a pouch. Tie the cheesecloth pouch securely and hang over a large bowl in the refrigerator for 24-48 hours. The yogurt will drain and become the consistency of soft cream cheese. Remove the labna from the cheesecloth. Form into small balls (about 1 - 2 ounces each). Line a sheet tray with a clean, dry towel and place the yogurt balls on the towel. Refrigerate another 24 hours to further dry the labna.Gently place the labna in a ceramic or glass container, sprinkle with fresh herbs or spices if desired, and pour enough olive oil in the container to sufficiently cover the yogurt cheese. Tightly covered and refrigerated, yogurt cheese may be able to be kept for up to 1 month.Cod and Yam Cakes with Yogurt-Cucumber SauceYield: 20 cakes3 large yams (about 2 pounds)1 pound fresh boneless and skinless cod2 tablespoons olive oil, plus additional for sautŽing2 large eggs1 bunch flatleaf parsley, coarsely chopped1 teaspoon salt1/2 teaspoon pepper1/2 cup fresh breadcrumbsYogurt-cucumber sauce (see recipe)Using an ordinary dinner fork, prick the yams and roast them with a small amount of water in a preheated 350-degree oven for 1/2 hour, or until thoroughly cooked; cool completely. Place the cod on a small baking sheet, drizzle with the 2 tablespoons olive oil and bake for 20 minutes, or until just cooked; cool completely. In a large bowl, mash the yams with a fork until smooth. Flake the fish into the bowl and gently toss together. Add the eggs, parsley, salt, pepper and breadcrumbs; gently mix together until combined. Shape the mixture into 3-inch patties and sautŽ in olive oil in a hot non-stick or cast-iron pan until brown on both sides. Transfer the cakes to a baking sheet and bake in a 350-degree oven for 5-10 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature with the yogurt-cucumber sauce.Yogurt-Cucumber Sauce1-1/2 cups1 cup plain yogurt1/2 cup grated cucumber2 cloves garlic, minced2 tablespoons minced fresh mint1 tablespoon minced onion1/4 teaspoon saltCombine all of the ingredients in a small glass or ceramic bowl, cover securely and refrigerate for 1 hourCarrot Soup with Ginger, Curry and YogurtYield: 2 quarts2 tablespoons vegetable oil1 small onion, diced2 teaspoons minced ginger2 teaspoons minced garlic1-2 tablespoons good quality curry powder2 tablespoon honey or sugar1-1/2 pounds peeled, diced carrots4 cups chicken stock or water1 teaspoon salt1/2 cup plain yogurtHeat the vegetable oil over medium-high heat in a heavy soup pot. Add the onion, ginger and garlic; sautŽ for 5 minutes, or until the onions are translucent. Add the curry and honey; sautŽ 2 minutes. Add the carrots, stock (or water) and salt. Bring the soup to a boil, then lower it to a simmer; skim any impurities that may rise to the surface. Cook the soup for approximately 45 minutes, or until the carrots are very soft. Remove the soup from the heat and stir in the yogurt. Transfer the soup, in batches, to a blender or food processor and purŽe until very smooth. Return the soup to the pot and warm it, but do not boil (boiling it may curdle the yogurt). Serve hot or cold.

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