Cooking Class: Not just for breakfast

Yogurt, a perfect summer food, adds flavor and freshness to salads and cooked dishes.

yogurt_58 (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When I spotted creamy rice on an Indian restaurant buffet, I took some, assuming it was rice pudding. Its flavor startled me - it was not sweet. In fact it had a touch of tartness. At the restaurant, a South Indian vegetarian eatery called Woodlands in Chatsworth, California, I learned that the name of the dish is yogurt rice or curd rice, and is popular in the southern part of the subcontinent.
After I got over the initial surprise, I tasted a couple more spoonfuls of the cool, creamy rice and realized that I really liked it. That day the yogurt rice was flavored gently with fresh ginger and green onions. On my next visit it was prepared with cucumbers and mustard seeds.
Yogurt is very important on Indian menus. “Most Indians make ’curds’ (yogurt) at home,” writes Maya Kaimal in ’Savoring the Spice Coast of India.’ She noted that in southern India yogurt is served with a final portion of rice at the end of a rice meal as a palate cleanser.
A great variety of yogurt salads are included in the Indian recipe repertoire.
In many regions of India these salads are called raita. Often they are made of seasoned yogurt and raw vegetables.
Kaimal's version includes chopped tomato, cucumber and onion, as well as fresh coriander, minced hot pepper, toasted cumin seeds, cayenne, salt and yogurt.
Some Indian yogurt salads include cooked vegetables. Two kinds of yogurt potato salad appear in Mazal Nissim's book, ”The Indian Vegetarian Kitchen.”
The simple one which is indeed very easy to make calls for mixing diced cooked potatoes and a bit of chopped onion with yogurt seasoned lightly with sugar, salt, ground hot red pepper and ground cumin. To make spicy potato raita, Nissim adds a fresh hot green pepper, chopped fresh coriander and sauteed cumin and mustard seeds, and omits the sugar.
Yogurt with zucchini is a south Indian accompaniment for rice, but Madhur Jaffrey, author of ”World of the East Vegetarian Cooking,” likes to eat it all by itself. To make it she sprinkles grated zucchini with salt, lets it stand for a while and presses out the liquid.
She then stir-fries the grated zucchini briefly with a mixture of sauteed mustard seeds and sliced onion. When the zucchini saute is cool, she folds it into yogurt and seasons the salad with salt, pepper and cayenne.
A more substantial salad is Jaffrey's cauliflower with peas and yogurt, which is nice as a very light lunch in summertime.
She stirs the cooked vegetables into yogurt and seasons the salad with ground roasted cumin, salt, pepper and cayenne. Other satisfying yogurt salads include chickpeas one with tomatoes and cumin and another, a popular Delhi snack, with potatoes, cumin, hot peppers and fresh coriander.
You can also make savory Indian yogurt salads with fruit, such as yogurt with banana Gujarati style, flavored with hot green peppers, salt and a little sugar. Jaffrey notes that the salad can be made with mango as well.
In the Mideast, yogurt salads with grilled vegetables are popular appetizers. I loved the mezze at the wonderful Anadolu Restaurant in Antakya (Antioch), Turkey, which included salads of grilled eggplant and grilled sweet peppers with yogurt. In Antakya, thick, labneh- like yogurt is commonly used in these salads, along with garlic and salt.
A variation calls for a touch of lemon juice and a drizzle of olive oil in addition to the garlic. At home we occasionally prepare Persian yogurt and grilled eggplant salad flavored with sauteed onions and garlic as well as dried mint. It makes a pleasing, light alternative to the usual eggplant with tahini.
To make Persian yogurt and spinach salad, we mix yogurt with lightly cooked spinach and sauteed onions and garnish the salad with walnuts. For Egyptian yogurt salad, we combine both cooked and raw vegetables--diced cooked beets mixed with tomatoes, cucumbers, yogurt and plenty of chopped garlic.
These dishes are perfect, easy to prepare, cooling enhancements to summertime meals. Serve them as appetizers, as light entrees with bread or as accompaniments for meatless main courses such as egg dishes or vegetable burgers.
For this light, tangy, almost effortless eggplant salad, simply put the whole eggplants on the grill, and when they are cool, chop them with garlic in a food processor or with a knife. Then add a few spoonfuls of yogurt. Choose any yogurt you like nonfat, lowfat or whole-milk, or use labneh instead. You can add lemon juice too, depending on the tartness of the yogurt. Serve the salad with fresh pita bread and a splash of olive oil.
✔ 2 large eggplants ✔ 2 garlic cloves, finely minced✔ 6 to 8 Tbsp. yogurt ✔ 2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil ✔ 2 tsp. strained fresh lemon juice, or to taste (optional) ✔ salt and freshly ground pepper ✔ cayenne pepper to taste Prick eggplant a few times with fork.
Grill eggplant over medium-hot coals or broil it, turning often, about 40 minutes, or bake it at 205C (400F) for 40 to 50 minutes.
When done, eggplant's flesh should be tender and eggplant should look collapsed.
Remove eggplant peel. Cut off stem.
Drain any liquid from inside eggplant.
Chop flesh fine with knife or by pulsing in a food processor, leaving it slightly chunky.
Transfer eggplant to a bowl. Stir in garlic.
Drain any liquid from yogurt and stir into eggplant mixture. Stir in olive oil. Season to taste with lemon juice, salt, pepper and cayenne. Serve cold. If you like, drizzle it with a little more olive oil at serving time.
This recipe is from my friend Neelam Batra, author of "1,000 Indian Recipes." In spite of the green chile pepper, it is often served as a soother after a spicy meal; you can omit the pepper if you wish. Batra recommends yogurt rice for picnics and potlucks. The colorful salad variation includes cucumbers and tomatoes.
Batra also makes a spicier yogurt rice enriched with chopped cashews and flavored with black mustard seeds sauteed with dried hot peppers. She notes that it is made with non-basmati long-grain white rice and that jasmine rice can be used.
✔ 1 cup long-grain white rice, sorted ✔ 2 cups water ✔ 1 Tbsp. peanut oil ✔ 1 small sweet onion, finely chopped
✔ 1 tsp. fresh ginger, peeled and minced ✔ 1 small fresh hot green chile pepper, minced, with seeds ✔ 3⁄4 tsp. salt, or to taste ✔ 11⁄2 to 2 cups nonfat plain yogurt, whisked until smooth ✔ 1⁄4 cup finely chopped fresh cilantro (fresh coriander), including soft stems ✔ 1⁄4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper, or to taste ✔ 1⁄4 tsp. ground paprika
Bring the rice and water to a boil in a medium nonstick saucepan over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to the lowest setting, cover the pan (partially at first, until the foam subsides, then snugly), and cook until all the water has been absorbed and the rice is tender, 12 to 15 minutes.
Heat the oil in a medium nonstick wok or skillet over medium-high heat and cook the onion, ginger and green chile pepper until heated through, 1 minute. Add the rice and salt and cook, stirring to break any clumps, until well mixed. Mix in the yogurt and the cilantro and remove from heat. Transfer to a serving dish, garnish with black pepper and paprika, and serve, preferably at room temperature.
Variation: Finely chop 3 plum tomatoes, 1 small seedless cucumber and 1⁄2 cup red radishes, then mix the vegetables and about 1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger into the cooked rice.
Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast and of the award-winning Faye Levy's International Vegetable Cookbook.