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cool & cultured

Cheese has been called milk's leap to immortality. Yogurt doesn't have the same vaulting artistic ambitions. Originally, it was just milk's bid for longer shelf life.

Of course, yogurt can apparently give all of us a longer shelf life too. Every day, it seems, somebody claims yogurt does us some new favor: lowering blood cholesterol, preventing colon cancer, protecting the stomach lining, helping food to digest, enabling us to live to 120.

I have reason to know some of the benefits of yogurt. Once upon a time, thanks to some positively foolhardy dining choices, I came down with ferocious dysentery in a Near Eastern country. The owner of the little hotel where I was staying sympathetically recommended yogurt and tea, which turned out to be all I could keep in my stomach for a couple of weeks.

When I got back to California, the diagnosis showed I was home to half a dozen intestinal parasites ("You're a menagerie," said the doctor with an unpleasant little chuckle). To clear it up I had to take a violent course of antibiotics. When it was over, the doctor prescribed yogurt, to colonize my now-depopulated digestive tract with friendly bacteria.

In time, many people learned of the health benefits of yogurt, and in many countries the tart, funky flavor of yogurt became part of the culinary palette.

In this country, we're still just beginning to like the naked flavor of yogurt. Because of our famous national sweet tooth, so far we mostly eat it with fruit, which strikes people from yogurt-eating countries as bizarre.

Now Americans, especially the fat- and health-conscious, are learning what Bulgaria, India, Greece, Turkey, Persia and a host of others have known for centuries: Yogurt makes great salads, sauces, soups and beverages, but, to begin with, yogurt was just a way of keeping milk from spoiling.

Today, with refrigeration and pasteurization, we're no longer aware of the real danger milk drinking once posed.

The culturing process converts the sugar in milk (lactose) into lactic acid. The acidity discourages other microbes from moving into the mix. Well-made yogurt will stay wholesome for days, even without refrigeration.

The lactose that was consumed in culturing is the very thing that makes milk difficult to digest for many people. In many parts of Africa and Asia, yogurt is the only dairy food people can tolerate.

All of this was a trial-and-error discovery, obviously. Was the process of scalding the milk before culturing it a primitive pasteurization technique, or was it just part of the process of getting the milk to the right temperature for the bacteria to grow? At any rate, eventually people learned to save some of the last batch of yogurt as a starter for the next batch, just as they saved some sourdough to leaven their next batch of bread.

Particularly in warm climates and among nomadic people whose storage facilities were limited, the culturing of milk was an invaluable way of saving the product of their flocks. There's a vast yogurt belt extending from Morocco to western China and including all of India.

Clearly, no one nation can claim to have invented it, not the Turks (though yogurt is a Turkish word) nor the Bulgarians (though one of the bacteria is known as Lactobacillus bulgaricus).

When you have a lot of yogurt on hand, you tend to develop a lot of uses for it. In the yogurt belt, it's mixed with vegetables (above all, sliced cucumber) and added to soups and stews. When we try these recipes, we have to remember that cow's milk yogurt curdles when it comes to a boil, so you have to stabilize it with flour, cornstarch or egg white and stir constantly as it cooks.

Yogurt is often diluted with water to make an appetizingly tart drink called laban in Arabic, ayran or chalab in Turkish, taan in Armenian and lassi in most Indian languages.

On the other hand, water is often removed from yogurt. If you stir yogurt up (preferably with a dash of salt to get things started) and hang it in a clean cloth, the whey will drip out and leave a rich concentrated yogurt more or less like a sour cream cheese.

In the Middle Ages, a Near Eastern banquet often began with an ancient Iranian appetizer known as bazmawurd, or "that which brings the banquet." Originally part of the cuisine of the Persian kings, this consisted of a flat, tortilla-like bread spread with thickened yogurt (or goat cheese) mixed with herbs, chopped nuts and black olives. It would be rolled up, warmed in the oven and sliced into canapes.

But whatever you do with yogurt, remember one thing: If you're taking antibiotics, wait an hour after eating any yogurt before taking the medication. Yogurt can interfere with the medicine's effectiveness.

Homemade Yogurt

1 quart milk

1 cup half-and-half

1 tablespoon plain yogurt

Combine milk and half-and-half in medium saucepan. Bring to boil over low heat. Remove from heat and transfer to clean bowl. Set aside to cool to 115 degrees. Add yogurt and whisk vigorously.

Cover bowl with plastic wrap, then wrap well with heavy towels or heavy blanket. Set aside in warm place 6 to 8 hours, or longer for more acidic flavor. Store in sealed containers in refrigerator. Makes 5 cups.

Source: Adapted from Susan Feniger and partner Mary Sue Milliken's City Cuisine (William Morrow: $19.95).

Sofi's Yaourtopita (Yogurt Cake)

1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature

1 cup sugar

4 eggs, separated

2 tablespoons vanilla

4 cups flour (plus more for dusting)

4 teaspoons baking powder

{ teaspoon baking soda

1{ cups plain yogurt

{ cup blanched almonds, chopped

Dash salt

\ cup whole blanched almonds

Butter (for greasing pan)

Cinnamon syrup or powdered sugar

Beat butter and sugar in large bowl of mixer until light and creamy. Add egg yolks one at time and beat in. Add vanilla.

Combine 4 cups flour, baking powder and baking soda. Add flour mixture and yogurt slowly to butter mixture while stirring, not beating. Add chopped almonds.

Beat egg whites in separate bowl with salt until thick meringue forms. Fold into batter. Mix blanched almonds into batter. Butter 13-by-9-inch baking pan. Dust with flour. Turn batter into pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes, or until top is golden brown. Serve at room temperature. Just before serving, spoon Cinnamon Syrup over entire cake until absorbed. Or omit syrup and sprinkle with powder sugar. Makes 16 servings.

Source: Sofi Konstantinidis, Los Angeles restaurateur.

Cinnamon Syrup

2 cups sugar

3 cups water

2 slices lemon

1 stick cinnamon

Combine sugar, water, lemon slices and cinnamon. Boil to make thin syrup. Makes about 2{ cups.

Source: Sofi Konstantinidis, Los Angeles restaurateur.

Roast Chicken Goes Gourmet

1 (3\-pound) chicken

Salt, pepper

Yogurt-Curry Dressing

12 Belgian endive leaves

12 spinach leaves

\ cup finely diced seeded tomato

4 handfuls mixed baby greens

12 slices papaya

\ cup shredded coconut, toasted

2 tablespoons julienned carrot, zucchini and daikon sprouts

Season chicken to taste with salt and pepper.

Roast at 375 degrees 1 hour 20 minutes.

Cool chicken, remove skin and shred meat (there should be 1\ pounds meat).

Place shredded chicken in large bowl.

Add Yogurt-Curry Dressing and toss with chicken.

For each serving, arrange three Belgian endive leaves and three spinach leaves around edge of large plate like flower petals.

Place a teaspoon diced tomato on each endive leaf.

Place handful baby greens in center of plate. Arrange chicken on top.

Stand three papaya slices upright on three sides of chicken.

Sprinkle a tablespoon coconut on top, then add one-half tablespoon julienned carrot, zucchini and daikon sprouts.

Makes four main-dish servings.

Source: Epicentre Restaurant, Kawada Hotel, Los Angeles

Yogurt-Curry Dressing

1 (16-ounce) carton low-fat yogurt

2} teaspoons Madras or other hot curry powder

1{ teaspoons mild curry paste

\ teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

\ teaspoon salt

[ teaspoon white pepper

Combine yogurt, curry powder, curry paste, Worcestershire, salt and pepper in bowl and mix well. Makes slightly more than 1 cup dressing.

Source: Epicentre Restaurant, Kawada Hotel, Los Angeles

Madeleine Kamman's Salmon

with Dill-Yogurt Sauce

Backbone of 1 salmon, coarsely chopped

1{ cups dry white wine

1{ cups clam juice

1{ cups water

1 small onion, chopped

Bouquet of 10 parsley stems, 1 sprig thyme and 1 bay leaf, tied together

Chopped stems of 1 bunch dill

Chopped dill

1 hothouse cucumber, peeled and cut into /-inch julienne

6 (4-ounce) salmon fillets

Salt, pepper

Dill sprigs

1 cup non-fat plain yogurt, well stirred

Place salmon bones, wine, clam juice, water, onion, herb bouquet and chopped dill stems in large saucepan. Boil until liquid is reduced to about { cup. Strain. Return to pan and boil until liquid is reduced to \ cup. Turn into bowl or small saucepan and keep warm. Add chopped dill to taste and let steep.

Place cucumber strips in nonstick skillet. Cover and cook over low heat until tender. Remove pan from heat and let cool to lukewarm. Add salmon fillets and season to taste with salt and pepper. Cover pan and cook cucumbers and salmon together over medium heat, covered tightly, 7 to 8 minutes.

Transfer each salmon fillet to plate and garnish with dill sprigs. Pour reserved sauce into skillet still containing cucumbers. Blend in stirred yogurt. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Spoon sauce onto each plate around salmon fillet. Makes 6 servings.

Source: Madeleine Kamman, director of the School for American Chefs at Beringer Vineyards.

Sarnapur

(Armenian Yogurt and Chard Soup)

{ cup chopped walnut meats

1\ cups water

\ cup rice

2 cups chopped Swiss chard leaves, packed

2{ tablespoons flour

3 cups yogurt

3 cups cilantro leaves, chopped

1 cup mint leaves, chopped

Salt

In large pan, add walnuts to water, bring to boil and simmer until slightly tender, about 5 minutes. Add rice, cover and simmer until done, about 15 minutes.

In medium pan, cook chard in 2 cups water until tender, 2-3 minutes. Drain well.

In small bowl, stir flour into yogurt until smooth. Stir into rice, bring slowly to boil, stirring constantly, and cook, continuing to stir, until thickened, about 1 minute.

Add yogurt and cooked chard to rice. Stir in cilantro and mint. Season to taste with salt. Cook 3 minutes. Serve hot or cold. Makes 4 servings.

Source: Los Angeles Times

Deli-Style, Low-fat Yogurt

Lemon Cheesecake

Crumb crust:

Generous } cup graham cracker crumbs

1 tablespoon chilled, unsalted butter

{ tablespoon light corn syrup

{ tablespoon water

Filling:

1 cup plain, nonfat yogurt (see note)

Scant cup granulated sugar

Finely grated zest (yellow part of skin) of 1 large lemon

2 large eggs plus 4 large egg whites

2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

2{ teaspoons vanilla extract

2 cups 1 percent fat, salt-free cottage cheese

12 ounces reduced-fat cream cheese (sometimes called Neufchatel), cut into chunks and at room temperature

\ cup all-purpose flour

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Generously grease (or spray with non-stick spray coating) the bottom of an 8{- or 9-inch springform pan. Set out a baking pan large enough to hold springform pan for a water bath, wrap bottom in a sheet of heavy-duty aluminum foil large enough to extend up pan sides by at least 3 inches all around.

In a food processor, combine crumbs and butter. In a small cup, stir together corn syrup and { tablespoon water until well-blended. Add corn syrup mixture to processed crumbs. Process until mixture is well blended and begins to hold together. Add a few more drops of water if mixture is too dry. Press crumbs smoothly into pan bottom. Bake 7 to 10 minutes, until lightly tinged with brown and firm to the touch. Reset oven to 350 degrees.

Meanwhile, fold a clean, tightly woven linen or cotton tea towel in half to yield a double layer and place in a sieve or colander. Spoon yogurt into center of folded towel. Set aside to drain for 15 minutes. Combine sugar and lemon zest in clean food processor bowl. Process about 1{ minutes, until lemon zest is very fine and sugar is yellow. Add eggs and whites, lemon juice, vanilla and cottage cheese to sugar mixture in food processor. Process about 2 minutes or until very smooth. Continue processing, gradually adding cream cheese chunks through feed tube, until all are incorporated and mixture is well-blended.

Carefully gather together edges of tea towel to form a bag around yogurt. Holding edges tightly and lightly twisting, gently squeeze bag and extract as much liquid whey as possible. Spoon yogurt and flour into processor. Process just until mixture is completely smooth.

Pour mixture into springform pan. Rap on counter 3 or 4 times to release air bubbles; allow to stand several minutes, then rap on counter again.

Place springform pan in larger pan. Set on center oven rack. Add enough hot tap water to pan so that it's 1 inch up the pan's sides.

Bake on center oven rack for 30 minutes. Lower heat to 300 degrees and bake for 35 minutes longer. Turn off oven; let cheesecake stand in water bath in oven for 20 minutes. Remove springform pan from water bath and transfer to wire rack; let stand until cooled. Refrigerate for at least 6 hours and up to 3 days, if desired. Top with fruit sauce or fresh berries, if desired.

Note: Check labels and be sure to choose a brand of nonfat yogurt that is free of vegetable gums, pectin, modified vegetable starch or gelatin. Such stabilizers prevent yogurt from releasing whey. To avoid a soggy crust, this whey must be removed.

Makes 12 servings.

Source: Dream Desserts by Nancy Baggett (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $24.95)

Chicken in a Green Sauce

1 3-pound chicken, cut into serving pieces and skinned, or 3 pounds of chicken pieces cut into serving pieces and skinned (do not skin legs)

4 1-inch cubes fresh ginger, peeled and coarsely chopped

8 to 10 garlic cloves chopped

1 cup water, divided

1 teaspoon ground turmeric

{ cups vegetable oil

3 large onions, sliced

{ pint plain yogurt

1\ to 1{ teaspoons salt

{ cup well-packed, chopped, fresh cilantro

4 jalapenos, seeded and deveined

{ cup well-packed, chopped fresh dill

Examine the chicken pieces and remove all extra bits of fat. When cutting the chicken into serving pieces, cut the breast into quarters and the legs into halves.

Put the ginger, garlic and { cup of water into the container of a food processor or blender. Blend until you have a paste. Add the turmeric and blend to mix.

Heat the oil in a very wide-based pan over a medium-high flame. When hot, add the onions. Stir and fry until golden with a few brown spots. Put in the ginger-garlic mixture. Stir and cook on medium-high heat for 10 minutes or until the ginger-garlic mixture has browned lightly. Add yogurt and salt. Stir. Scrape up anything that may have stuck to the bottom of the pan. Bring to a simmer; cover. Lower heat and simmer about 15 minutes or until the chicken is almost done.

While the chicken is simmering, put the cilantro, jalapenos and remaining { cup water into food processor container or blender. Blend until smooth.

When the chicken is almost done, remove the lid and turn the heat up to medium. Boil away some of the liquid to thicken the sauce. Add processed mixture to chicken and stir to mix, then add dill. Simmer 5 minutes. Spoon off as much fat as possible before serving. Makes 6 servings.

Source: Adapted from A Taste of India by Madhur Jaffrey (Atheneum, $29.95)

Peach-Melon Frozen Yogurt

3 cups frozen mixed fruit (peaches, melon, grapes)

cup superfine (instant dissolving) sugar

{ cup plain nonfat yogurt

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

In a food processor, combine frozen fruit and sugar. Using an on/off motion, process until coarsely chopped. Stir together yogurt and lemon juice. With the machine running, gradually pour the yogurt mixture though the feed tube. Process until smooth and creamy, scraping down the sides of the work bowl once or twice. Scoop the frozen yogurt into serving dishes, cover and freeze 15 to 30 minutes to firm up slightly before serving.

Makes 4 servings.

Source: Eating Well magazine, May/June 1993.

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