New ways to celebrate an ancient food

Kate Lawson
The Detroit News

How can a food be revolutionary and modern at the same time? Touted as one of the oldest produced foods in human history, no one is exactly sure how far back yogurt goes, but when the date includes "B.C.," it's a safe bet that this fermented dairy product is indeed an ancient discovery.

And to this day, more and more consumers are discovering the beauty of this creamy treat.

What exactly is yogurt? Quite simply, it is milk that has been heated, then cooled then inoculated with bacterial strains and left to culture at warm temperatures until it ferments and thickens. While the process doesn't sound all that appealing, the finished product most assuredly is.

Various theories of how yogurt was discovered abound; some evidence suggests that by 9000 B.C. Neolithic man in Central Asia had domesticated horses, cattle, and camels, and were known to drink their milk. But when attempting to store that milk in a warm climate and transporting milk in goatskin sacks, fermentation took place. Early man enjoyed it and yogurt has not only survived into modern times, but has spread throughout the world. We know this because yogurt appears in ancient and historic texts including the Bible.

Prized for its unique tastes and purported health benefits, there are so many versions and brands of yogurt on the market that choosing the right one for you can be boggling. Packed with protein, crammed with calcium, popping with probiotics, yogurt has all the makings of the best weight-loss foods, but pay attention to the labels: manufacturers have a knack for cramming copious amounts of sugar and artificial ingredients into those pots. New brands and new flavors continue to show up on the yogurt scene — probiotic, Greek, fruit on the bottom, Swiss style (fruit stirred in) and even savory varieties crowd the shelves and have revolutionized the diary aisle. In fact, yogurt climbed to a $7 billion industry in 2014, according to and market research from Mintel, and sales are expected to top $9 billion by 2018.

Keep in mind, however, that flavored yogurts have added sugar and fruit, which will increase the carb and calorie count significantly. But when you scrape away all the mix-ins, candies, syrups and preservatives, yogurt is one of the best foods you can buy. Natalie Stein, assistant professor of nutrition at Michigan State University, confirms what we all should know by now — unsweetened yogurt is the healthiest.

These days, Greek yogurt is the darling of the yogurt craze and for good reason. In essence, it is the low-carb dieter's dream. The yogurt is heavily strained to remove liquid whey and lactose, leaving behind a tangy, creamy product. Plain Greek yogurt has double the protein, half the carbs (5-8 grams per serving) and half the sodium of the regular variety. Plain, regular yogurt has double or triple the number of carbohydrates.

Where once sour cream ruled the fridge as the main ingredient in dips and sauces, yogurt has taken over deliciously. Next time you top a baked potato, for instance, trying blending chopped chives, salt and pepper into plain yogurt instead. Not only is it better, it's better for you. According to, the nutritional differences between fat-free and full-fat varieties of Greek yogurt and sour cream can be dramatic. While nonfat Greek yogurt has just 133 calories per cup, 1 gram of fat and 8 grams of carbohydrates, a 1-cup serving of the full-fat type has 300 calories, 23 grams of fat and 7 grams of carbohydrates. One cup of sour cream has more calories and fat than Greek yogurt, even when it's a low-fat brand. One cup of reduced fat sour cream has 416 calories, 32 grams of fat and 16 grams of carbohydrates. However, you're not likely to eat an entire cup of sour cream. For comparison, 2 tablespoons of reduced fat sour cream contain 43 calories, 3 grams of fat and 2 grams of carbs.

To celebrate the versatility of this dairy superstar, award-winning food writers Cheryl Sternman Rule and Janet Fletcher have published books on the subject of this ancient and versatile ingredient and now you can learn not only the history of this dairy superstar, but discover new ways to appreciate it beyond smoothies, ice cream and dips.

Janet Fletcher's "Yogurt," (Ten Speed Press, $19.99) is inspired by the culinary traditions of Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, India, and other Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries. Her recipes for a refreshing summer salad and a golden yogurt cake are just a few examples of the versatility of this protein-rich food and flavor booster.

Fletcher also offers a guide on how to purchase the best brands of yogurt and also gives easy instructions on how to make yogurt at home. (All of her recipes can contain either store-bought or homemade yogurt.)

Similarly, in "Yogurt Culture" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $22), Cheryl Sternman Rule shares recipes and stories from kitchens around the world and visits yogurt producers large and small to explore the scope of this booming industry. After exploring the history of yogurt, she, too, offers a fool-proof guide on how to take the anxiety of making yogurt from scratch. Rule also explains how to strain regular yogurt into a thick, creamy Greek version, then combines it with blood orange and kalamata olives for an outstanding dip.

Customize it, cook with it, eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner; I have tried it in cold soups, hot curries, frozen with fruit and straight out of the jar. Plain, honest yogurt will always have a place in my life.

Chopped Summer Vegetable Salad with Farro, Yogurt & Za'atar

From "Yogurt, by Janet Fletcher.

1/2 cup semi-pearled farro (See Note)

Garlic Vinaigrette

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon white wine vinegar, plus more if needed

1 teaspoon Thai or Vietnamese fish sauce

1 clove garlic, finely minced

Kosher or sea salt

1 cup plain yogurt

1 large clove garlic, grated or finely minced

1 tablespoon za'atar (a Middle Eastern spice blend)

1/2 pound cucumbers, preferably Persian, Japanese, or hothouse English variety

1/2 cup thinly sliced green onions, white and pale green parts only

1/2 cup loosely packed whole cilantro leaves (no stems)

2 to 3 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh mint

1 large handful small arugula, watercress, or purslane leaves (no thick stems)

1/2 pound ripe, but firm tomatoes, cut into 1/3-inch dice

1/2 large ripe, but firm avocado, cut into 1/3-inch dice

Bring 3 cups of salted water to a boil in a small saucepan over high heat. Add the farro and reduce the heat to medium; skim off any surface foam. Cover partially, adjust the heat to maintain a gentle simmer, and cook until the farro is al dente — fully cooked, but still firm to the tooth — about 30 minutes. Drain well in a sieve, and then transfer to a large bowl.

To make the dressing: In a small bowl, whisk together the olive oil, vinegar, fish sauce, garlic, and salt to taste.

Spoon about 1 1/2 tablespoons dressing over the farro, enough to coat it lightly, and toss well with a fork. Taste and add more salt or a splash of vinegar, if needed.

In a small bowl, whisk together the yogurt, garlic, and salt to taste. Make a bed of yogurt sauce on a large platter, using it all. Sprinkle the za'atar over the yogurt.

If the cucumbers have a thick or waxed skin, peel them; if not, then leave unpeeled. Halve the cucumbers lengthwise. If they have large seeds, scrape out the seeds with a small spoon. If the seeds are small, no need to remove. Cut the cucumber into 1/3-inch dice and add to the farro, along with the green onions, cilantro, and mint. Add more dressing and toss gently to mix. Add the arugula, tomatoes, and avocado. Drizzle with the remainder of the dressing and toss gently to avoid breaking up the tomatoes and avocado. Taste for salt and vinegar.

Using your hands, mound the farro salad on top of the yogurt, leaving a visible border of yogurt. Serve immediately. Serves 4.

Note: Known as emmer in English, farro (the Italian word) is a type of wheat with a particularly nutty taste and pleasing chewiness. Look for lightly pearled farro (semi-perlato on Italian brands), which you can recognize by the slightly abraded appearance of the exterior, the bran layer. Whole, unpearled farro takes much longer to cook and doesn't absorb the dressing as well.

Per serving: 290 calories; 16 fat (3g saturated fat; 50 percent calories from fat); 30 g carbohydrates; 7 g sugar; 6 mg cholesterol; 342 mg sodium; 8 g protein; 6 g fiber.

Absinthe's Golden Yogurt Cake

From "Yogurt," by Janet Fletcher.

This moist, simple cake has a tender golden crumb and a subtle citrus flavor. Accompany the cake and fruit with a dollop of the Yogurt Cream, if you like. Recipe is adapted from Bill Corbett, executive pastry chef for the Absinthe Group in San Francisco, who uses yogurt frequently in his desserts. The cake stays moist for a week if stored in a lidded plastic cake container.

1 1/2 cups sifted all-purpose flour

2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1 cup plain whole-milk yogurt

1/2 cup vegetable oil

1 1/2 teaspoons grated lemon, Meyer lemon, or orange zest, or a combination

3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

3/8 teaspoon kosher or sea salt

3 large eggs

1 1/4 cups sugar

Yogurt Cream (optional)

1 cup plain drained yogurt or Greek yogurt (not nonfat)

1/4 cup honey

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup heavy cream, whipped to firm peaks

I love a thin slice — okay, a thick slice — in the middle of the afternoon with coffee, but it's also well matched with summer berries and stone fruits. My husband enjoys it for breakfast. In winter, pair the cake with a citrus compote or poached quince.

Preheat an oven to 350 degrees. Butter the bottom and sides of a 9-inch round cake pan with 2-inch sides. Line the bottom with parchment paper and dust the sides with flour, shaking out the excess.

Sift together the flour and baking powder in a bowl.

In a bowl, whisk together the yogurt, oil, zest, vanilla, and salt.

In a stand mixer fitted with a whip, beat the eggs on medium speed until frothy and well blended. Add the sugar gradually. Raise the speed to medium-high and whip until the sugar dissolves and the mixture is thick and pale, stopping the machine to scrape down the sides of the bowl at least once. Lower the mixer speed and add the yogurt mixture gradually. Add the dry ingredients gradually and beat just until well blended.

Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan, spreading it evenly. Bake on a center rack until the surface is golden brown and firm to the touch and a toothpick comes out clean, about 40 minutes. Cool on a rack for 10 minutes, and then unmold and finish cooling, top side up, on the rack.

To make the yogurt cream: In a bowl, whisk together the yogurt, honey, and vanilla. Gently fold in the whipped cream.

Slice the cake into wedges to serve, topping each portion with a dollop of the yogurt cream, if desired. Serves 8.

Per serving: 526 calories; 29 g fat (10 g saturated fat; 50 percent calories from fat); 61 g carbohydrates; 42 g sugar; 128 mg cholesterol; 277 mg sodium; 8 g protein; 1 g fiber.

Warm Chickpeas with Toasted Pita, Pine Nuts & Yogurt Sauce

From "Yogurt," by Janet Fletcher.

Stale bread has inspired some of the world's tastiest dishes, including this one from the Arab kitchen. In Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt, frugal cooks layer their tired flatbread with moist ingredients, like boiled chickpeas or chicken, and big dollops of garlicky yogurt. The dry bread softens quickly in the juicy layers, becoming like pasta in a creamy lasagna. For a more robust dish, add a couple layers of shredded poached chicken or browned ground lamb.

1/4 cup pine nuts

2 whole-grain pita bread rounds

2 cups plain yogurt (not nonfat)

1 to 2 cloves garlic, grated or finely minced

1 teaspoon finely minced fresh mint

Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

3 cups Boiled Chickpeas (recipe follows) or 3 cups canned chickpeas, drained and rinsed

1 cup broth from Boiled Chickpeas or canned chicken or vegetable broth

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1/2 teaspoon medium-hot, coarsely ground red pepper, such as Aleppo or Maras¸ pepper (see note), or hot paprika

2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

Ground sumac, for garnish

Preheat an oven to 325 degrees. Toast the pine nuts in a pie tin or on a baking sheet until they are evenly golden brown, about 5 minutes, shaking them to redistribute partway through. Let cool.

Using your hands, carefully tear each pita in half along the "equator" to yield half-moons, each with a pocket. Gently open the half-moons and separate the pockets at the rounded edge so that you have eight half-moon pieces. Under a preheated broiler or in a toaster oven, toast the pita on both sides until crisp; watch carefully to avoid scorching. Let cool, and then break into pieces about the size of tortilla chips.

In a bowl, whisk together the yogurt, garlic, mint, and salt and pepper to taste.

Put the chickpeas and broth in a saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Cover and adjust the heat to maintain a gentle simmer.

Put half of the toasted pita in a serving dish. Moisten with about 1/3 cup of the hot broth. Add half of the chickpeas, lifting them out with a slotted spoon and scattering them over the pita.

Spoon half of the yogurt over the chickpeas. Repeat the layering: toasted pita, hot broth, chickpeas, and yogurt.

In a small saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the red pepper and sauté until its fragrance rises, less than 1 minute. Add the pine nuts and stir to coat with butter. When the butter sizzles and foams, spoon the pine nuts and all the butter over the yogurt. Garnish with the cilantro and a shower of sumac and serve immediately.

Boiled Chickpeas

1 pound dried chickpeas, soaked overnight in enough water to cover generously

3 cloves garlic, peeled and halved

1 dozen black peppercorns

1 whole clove

1 onion, peeled and halved

1 large celery rib, cut into 4 pieces

2 carrots, cut into large chunks

2 bay leaves

Kosher or sea salt

You can also cook the chickpeas in a pressure cooker, following the manufacturer's instructions. For pre-soaked beans, pressure-cook for 12 minutes, and then remove from the heat and let the pressure cooker cool before releasing the lid. Use leftover chickpeas in salads or in soups.

Drain the chickpeas and put them in a large pot with 2 quarts of cold water. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, skimming off any foam. Wrap the garlic, peppercorns, and clove in a cheesecloth sachet or enclose in a tea ball. When the chickpeas stop generating foam, add the onion, celery, carrots, bay leaves, and sachet. Return to a simmer, cover, and adjust the heat to maintain a gentle simmer. Cook until the chickpeas are fully tender, about 1 1/2 hours. Season with salt and let cool in the cooking liquid. When cool, discard the onion, carrots, celery, and bay leaves, and remove the sachet. Refrigerate the chickpeas in their cooking broth. They will keep for about 5 days. Serves 4.

Note: Aleppo pepper is from Syria (though also grown in Turkey)‚ Maras pepper is from Turkey‚ but both of these coarsely ground red peppers have a fruity‚ earthy flavor and a medium-low to medium level of heat. Keep in a tightly sealed jar in the refrigerator or freezer up to 6 months.

Per serving: 446 calories; 16 g fat (6 g saturated fat; 32 percent calories from fat); 60 g carbohydrates; 14 g sugar; 24 mg cholesterol; 488 mg sodium; 20 g protein; 12 g fiber.

Ultimate Strawberry Frozen Yogurt

From "Yogurt Culture," by Cheryl Sternman Rule.

Balsamic vinegar and minced rosemary lend subtle notes that heighten the berry essence without overshadowing it.

1 pound strawberries, preferably organic

1/2 cup, plus 2 tablespoons sugar

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

2 1/2 cups plain whole-milk yogurt (not Greek) or 1 1/2 cups plain whole-milk Greek yogurt

1 tablespoon light corn syrup

1 tablespoon, plus 1 teaspoon finely minced fresh rosemary, plus (optional) additional minced rosemary for garnish

In a food processor, pulse the strawberries, sugar, and vinegar in five 1-second bursts. Let stand at room temperature (go ahead and keep it in the food processor), covered, for 1 hour.

If using traditional yogurt, spoon it into a fine-mesh sieve set over a deep bowl. Refrigerate to drain off the whey for 1 hour only. Discard the whey or reserve it for another use. Add the yogurt to the food processor with the strawberries. (If using Greek yogurt, do not strain, but do not add the yogurt to the berries until after they have stood for 1 hour.)

Add the corn syrup to the yogurt mixture. Process until nearly smooth. Transfer to a covered container and refrigerate for at least 4 hours or overnight.

Freeze the mixture in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's instructions. After 20 minutes, add the rosemary. Continue churning until the mixture has fully thickened and is nearly scoopable. You may eat it now, soft-serve style, but it is recommended transferring it to a metal loaf pan to further chill and develop deeper flavor. Press a sheet of parchment directly on the surface of the frozen yogurt, then cover tightly with aluminum foil. Freeze for several hours.

Let the yogurt stand at room temperature at least 20 minutes before scooping with a hot, dry scoop. Garnish sparingly with rosemary. Makes 1 quart or 8 servings.

Per serving: 138 calories; 3 g fat (2 g saturated fat; 20 percent calories from fat); 27 g carbohydrates; 24 g sugar; 10 mg cholesterol; 42 mg sodium; 3 g protein; 1 g fiber.

Yogurt Culture-Blood Orange, Kalamata, and Red Onion Dip

From "Yogurt Culture," by Cheryl Sternman Rule.

Heaped with bright and juicy blood oranges, briny olives, and flecks of sharp red onion, this dip is a luxuriously simple interplay of flavors, textures, and colors with very few ingredients.

3/4 cup plain whole-milk Greek yogurt or labneh, homemade or store-bought

Kosher salt

1 blood orange (or Valencia, Cara Cara, or navel orange, if blood oranges are unavailable)

1/4 cup pitted kalamata olives, drained and minced

1 tablespoon minced red onion

2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil

Freshly ground pepper

1/8 teaspoon sumac (optional)

Toasted whole-wheat pita triangles, for serving

If using yogurt, season it with a good pinch of salt. (Don't salt the labneh.) Scrape the yogurt into a shallow bowl and smooth it with the back of a spoon to create a wide indentation. Using a sharp knife, cut away the peel and white pith from the orange and dice the flesh.

Scatter the orange pieces over the yogurt. Sprinkle the olives and onion on top. Drizzle with the oil in a thin stream. Season lightly with salt and more aggressively with pepper. Dust with the sumac, if using. Serve immediately with the toasted pita triangles.

Note: The orange will weep juice into the dip over time, so plan to make this just before serving. Serves 2.

Per serving: 187 calories; 11 g fat (5 g saturated fat; 53 percent calories from fat); 13 g carbohydrates; 10 g sugar; 12 mg cholesterol; 182 mg sodium; 10 g protein; 2 g fiber.