Janet Fletcher is probably best known as a supreme connoisseur of cheese. A longtime contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle, she is the author or co-author of more than two dozen books, including Cheese & Wine, Cheese & Beer, and The Cheese Course. Her weekly email newsletter, Planet Cheese, is read by cheese enthusiasts internationally, she is a member of the Guilde Internationale des Fromagers, and she teaches cooking and cheese-appreciation classes around the country. But with her new book, Yogurt: Sweet and Savory Recipes for Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner, which comes out tomorrow, Fletcher has turned her attention to another increasingly popular milk-based food. We caught up with the Napa resident to ask about her possible change of allegiance.
You’re known as the cheese guru — why the switch to yogurt?
I haven’t switched! There’s room for both in my life — every day, in fact. I have been a yogurt eater since I was a teenager; I took it to school almost every day, frozen, in my lunchbox. I started making it as an adult and have picked up the pace in recent years because you save so much money making your own yogurt. Even so, I’m as lazy as the next person and I buy a lot of yogurt, too. I wrote Yogurt because I noticed the proliferation of brands and styles at the supermarket and saw a lot of people standing in front of that vast wall of yogurt, not knowing how to choose. I wanted to steer people to some of the better choices and also encourage them to make yogurt at home so they can control what’s in it.
To what do you attribute the fairly recent resurgence in interest in yogurt?
A lot of people are consuming more yogurt for the probiotic benefits. Others are drawn to the rich taste and creamy texture of Greek-style yogurt and its high protein content. I think consumers perceive yogurt as wholesome and natural — which it is. And many avid cooks have discovered that it’s a foundation ingredient — an absolute kitchen essential — in the Mediterranean, Eastern European and Indian dishes that they love. Having yogurt in your fridge opens a door into so many culinary realms.
Just how bad for you are the commercial cups of sweetened yogurt?
I don’t think commercial sweetened yogurt is bad for you. But some of it does not have any probiotic value (no live active cultures), and some of it contains more sugar than you would probably add if you were sweetening it yourself. If you’re eating yogurt for health, why not add fresh, seasonal fruit rather than buy a yogurt with processed fruit in it? Then you can sweeten to taste — or not at all.
Regular or Greek? What’s the fundamental difference?
Greek-style yogurt has had whey removed to make it thicker. At home, you can do this by simply draining homemade or store-bought plain yogurt in a cheesecloth-lined sieve for an hour or two. Commercial producers use more technology, like centrifuges, to remove the whey. Or they concentrate the milk before culturing it, so they’re removing water rather than whey. But the idea is the same — to yield thick yogurt with a luscious texture.
Is the medical establishment on board with the probiotic benefits of yogurt?
There’s growing evidence to support the notion that some bacteria — like Lactobacillus acidophilus —are probiotic, or health promoting. But from what I read, there are still many unanswered questions — like whether probiotic supplements provide the same benefit as eating yogurt; which species and strains are probiotic; and how they operate. I eat yogurt more for pleasure than for health, but if it’s the health benefits you are after, be sure to choose a yogurt with live active cultures.
Many of your recipes hail from Southeast Europe (or the Balkans), the Middle East and India — why does yogurt feature so heavily in the diet there and has not, historically, in the U.S.? (Or has it?!)
A lot of my recipes come from places where yogurt has been part of the traditional cooking in those cultures for centuries. Historians think yogurt originated in Central Asia and then spread from there into Iran, then west to the Balkans, east to Afghanistan, and south to Pakistan and India. Wherever people were raising dairy animals — cows, sheep, goats, water buffalo — they had to have some way to preserve the milk in the days before refrigeration.
In the U.S., I suppose yogurt-eating was slow to establish because our early immigrants came mostly from northern Europe. Once we started to welcome more immigrants from the Middle East, Eastern Europe and India, yogurt became more familiar here. Many Americans have come to love yogurt through encountering lassi and raita in Indian restaurants or tzatziki in Greek restaurants, for example.
Did you make any interesting discoveries while researching the book?
Yes, I learned a good technique for making a more stable, thicker yogurt at home — by heating the milk to a higher temperature and holding it there for a longer time than most yogurt recipes specify. I explain in the book why this works, and it really does.
Is homemade yogurt a better way to go, or can we buy good yogurt locally? If so, any recommendations on brands?
You can save a lot of money by making your own yogurt, and you can control what’s in it. However, Bay Area markets have many great yogurt choices. My default is Straus Family Creamery. I love its flavor and texture, and the fact that it’s local and organic. I avoid yogurts with stabilizers (pectin, cornstarch or gums) because they make yogurt too stiff and pudding-like. However, I do like the Redwood Hill goat yogurt, which has a stabilizer. Goat yogurt is more fragile and it pretty much has to have stabilizer of some sort for commercial viability.
Any favorite recipes in the book?
Well, it’s a small book so no recipe went in unless I absolutely loved it. But for spring, for right now, I would highlight the Braised Lamb Shoulder with Artichokes, Peas and Yogurt; the Chilled Golden Beet and Yogurt Soup; and the Greek Yogurt Panna Cotta with Strawberry Rhubarb Sauce. I just got back from an enormous natural-foods show, where I served hundreds of samples of a traditional Indian dessert called shrikhand. It’s made with super-thick yogurt sweetened with sugar, flavored with saffron and cardamom, and topped with toasted coconut, pistachios and almonds. People raved and it even got a thumbs-up from the Indians who tried it.
Fletcher shared two recipes from her new book with Nosh. Click on the links for details on how to make Warm Chickpeas with Toasted Pita, Pine Nuts and Yogurt Sauce, and Lamb Meatballs in Warm Yogurt Sauce with Sizzling Red Pepper Butter.
Recipe: Greek-style yogurt with cardamom mango (03.17.15)
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