I knew that one day that jelly net my mum gave me would come in handy. She keeps us generously supplied (even at the age of 88) with marmalade, damson, strawberry and raspberry jam, lemon curd and mint jelly and has, I think, some idea that I might have inherited the jam making gene. The problem is that because she is so good at it, I’ve never really had to practice. So when she presented me with the jelly net and its intriguing three-armed bits and pieces I put it in a drawer and there it languished. For about 10 years.
However I put it to good use now, making labneh, which is simple as simple and you don’t really need a jelly net – just good quality muslin or a bit of net curtain (extra extra clean) and somewhere to hang it. And something to hang it from. I shall leave that to your own ingenuity….
What’s labneh? It is strained yogurt, so thick you can slice it. It’s a bit like curd cheese and it originates in Lebanon although I have seen similar in Greece and Turkey. And Siberia.
As a general rule I make my own yogurt – it’s not exactly difficult. Heat a litre of whole milk till you can just keep your little finger in it for 10 seconds then take off the heat and whisk in three tablespoons of live yogurt. Then put in your yogurt maker – mine was about £10 from Lakeland) and leave overnight. It will set equally well if you cover with a clean cloth and leave it on the kitchen table for 24 hours. If you don’t want to make it you don’t have to – just buy some really good quality live yogurt from the shop.
Now you need to find a way to strain your yogurt. I use mother’s jelly net but I have also used muslin (and a net curtain!) – just make sure it has been boiled first, then pour in the yogurt and let the liquid (whey) drip through into a bowl or saucepan. You need patience to make good labneh because the knack is to lose as much of the whey as possible. I find this takes a good two days, though sometimes I am impatient and squeeze the bag a bit! What you are aiming for is a labneh that consists of all of the milk solids and very little of the liquid. So when it is ready it should peel away from the side of the muslin or jelly net. What next?
Turn the solid curds into an ultra-clean stainless steel bowl (scald with boiling water). Finely chop fresh mint, dill and parsley. Scald a large jar with a wide neck – or any container – then half fill with good olive or rapeseed oil. The next bit I find easier if I wear plastic food prep gloves. You need a method here to save it getting very messy!
Put the chopped herbs on a shallow plate between the labneh and the jar or container. Put on the gloves then wet your hands, take a dessert spoon of labneh and drop it in the palm of one hand and then roll it into a small ball, drop onto the herbs and cover with the fragrant green stuff then drop the covered balls into the container with the oil. Keep doing this until your jar is full. Sometimes you might need to change gloves two or three times to prevent everything sticking to everything! If you have read my blackcurrant massacre blog you will know my propensity for mess! You can store the labneh for up to a month this way.
An easier way is to just get to the ‘strained’ stage and then just put the labneh in a bowl, covered with herbs and maybe olives or marinated tomatoes and herbs, then scoop it out with fresh warm flatbread, or serve with meze.
At our six course North African popup supper club last week I served it with a minted cucumber salad and Ez’me – very, very finely chopped red chillis, red and green pepper and de-seeded tomato seasoned with seasalt, black pepper and the citrus zing of sumac powder.
And what to do with the whey? Well don’t waste it! Heat the remaining whey (probably about 300ml) to blood temperature and then add the juice of a squeezed lemon. The solids suspended in the liquid will coagulate and give you a generous portion of ricotta. Pour it gently through a muslin to catch the ricotta then put in a clean bowl and allow to cool. Serve it the next day drizzled with olive oil, some grated lemon zest and a grind of black pepper.
And what to do with the remaining whey? Pour it on your compost heap or straight onto your roses. Highly nutritious and nothing wasted!