Yogurt has had a recent meteoric rise in popularity in this country. Once the favorite food of “hippies” and “health food addicts,” it is now eaten by just about everybody. I think it has a lot to do with the introduction of Greek yogurt.
The yogurt we were used to had a slippery and, to my mind, unpleasant texture and a tart, even sour, flavor. When fruit was added to the container, it didn’t improve the product much. If anything, it then became way too sweet and the fruit didn’t taste natural.
Yogurt is a valued ingredient in many cultures, particularly along the Eastern Mediterranean and into the Middle East, where I have found inspiration for savory dishes that include yogurt.
From several very good cookbooks about Eastern Med and Middle Eastern food, I prepared some wonderful meals and one of the tastiest dolphin dishes ever.
A few of the ingredients may not be familiar to some of you, but if you try them you may be converted. They are increasingly easier to locate in the grocery store and, if not, can be found online in a variety of specialty sites. And they are not expensive.
Sumac, for example, is a staple spice in the region. It can be purchased ground or whole, and is used for its red coloration and its tart, citrusy flavor. You can use it both ways and grind it yourself. I have a small electric coffee grinder that I reserve for spices.
Za’atar is generally purchased as a dry, ground mixture of a few different spices, usually containing sumac and sesame seeds and heavy on wild thyme, which is also, by the way, commonly known in the Middle East as za’atar. Don’t confuse the mixture with thyme when purchasing.
Za’tar makes a great breakfast (or later in the day, with drinks) on warm flat Lebanese bread. Mix it with a little olive oil and you have a spread. Different areas have slightly different variations of the mix, so don’t worry about the origin. They are all good.
Pomegranate molasses and tahini (sesame paste) are essentials for the pantry. Once you experience their taste sensations, you will find many ways to use them.
As ever, salt is sea salt and pepper is freshly ground unless otherwise noted.
DOLPHIN WITH WALNUT-CILANTRO DRESSING
(Adapted from a recipe in “Artichoke to Za’tar” by Greg Malouf and Lucy Malouf)
3/4 cup walnuts
1 1/2 cups fresh cilantro leaves and stalks
2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Juice of 1 lemon
1 generous pinch sumac
Salt and pepper
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 whole shallot, finely chopped
6 dolphin fillets
Salt and pepper
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup tahini whipped with yogurt (See recipe below.)
Roast the walnuts in preheated 400-degree oven for 5 minutes or, as I prefer, in a dry pan over high heat on the stovetop so you can keep a close watch and prevent the nuts from burning.
When toasted, rub them briskly in a tea towel to remove as much of the skin as possible.
Wash the cilantro and chop roughly.
Whisk the oil and lemon juice together with salt, pepper and sumac. Add the shallots and garlic and whisk lightly. Add the walnuts and cilantro and whisk again.
Lightly season the fish with salt and pepper.
Heat the olive oil in a heavy pan until very hot but not smoking. Place the fish in the pan and cook for about 1 minute per side, until just colored.
Place the fish in a baking dish brushed with olive oil and place on the top shelf of the preheated oven. Cook for about 10 minutes, until the fish becomes flaky.
Remove the fish from the oven and allow to cool slightly. Then coat with half of the tahini-yogurt mixture. Spoon on the walnut-cilantro dressing and spread it neatly over the entire surface of the fish.
Serve at room temperature with more tahini sauce and plenty of lemon wedges.
The original recipe calls for four whole baby snappers rather than dolphin fillets, and I had more than enough sauce and dressing left to use again as you will see.
TAHINI WHIPPED WITH YOGURT
1 1/4 cups yogurt
3 tablespoons tahini, well mixed
Juice of 1 lemon
1 clove garlic, crushed with 1/4 teaspoon of salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
Combine all the ingredients in a bowl and whisk thoroughly. Taste and adjust seasoning if needed.
Serve the dolphin with couscous flavored with extra-virgin olive oil, lemon zest, and fresh cilantro.
NEXT DAY MIDDLE EASTERN DOLPHIN SALAD
Because I cooked more dolphin than two of us would eat, we had leftovers. To make this salad, simply break up the cooked and sauced dolphin with a fork. Add thin slices of red onion to taste. Add more tahini-yogurt sauce to moisten as needed.
Place salad on Boston lettuce leaves and top with walnut-cilantro dressing. Sprinkle with ground sumac.
Another satisfying dinner is Fattoush, a Middle Eastern salad. Because pita is included, there is no need for bread on the side. Coating the toasted pita in olive oil prevents it from getting soggy when mixed with the vegetables and dressing.
As you might expect, there are numerous variations according to regional tastes. I like this one adapted from Bon Appetit magazine.
4 teaspoons ground sumac, soaked in 4 teaspoons warm water for 15 minutes
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses
2 small garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons white wine vinegar
1/2 teaspoon dried mint
3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 pita breads, halved, toasted until golden brown, broken into bite-size pieces
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
3 medium ripe tomatoes, chopped, or 4 cups cherry tomatoes, halved
1 pound Persian cucumbers or 1 pound English hothouse cucumbers, quartered lengthwise, thinly sliced crosswise
6 scallions, thinly sliced
Lettuce (I used Boston that I had for the dolphin salad but romaine would add crunch.)
2 cups fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
1 cup fresh mint leaves
Ground sumac to sprinkle
Are you noticing a flavor trend here? Since you have the ingredients, try this unusual and pretty hors d’oeuvre or lunch plate.
SUZME ROLLED IN ZA’TAR, SUMAC AND PISTACHIOS
(From “Purple Citrus and Sweet Perfume” by Silvena Rowe)
1 quart whole milk plain yogurt, not Greek style this time
7 ounces goat cheese
1/3 cup finely chopped pistachios
1/3 cup finely ground pistachios
2 tablespoon za’atar
2 tablespoons crushed sumac
Salt and pepper
2 pieces of cheesecloth, approximately 12-by-12 inches
Greens for serving
Warm crusty bread for serving
One or two days in advance: To make suzme, place the yogurt in the center of the double-layered cheesecloth. Standing over a sink, twist the muslin around the yogurt until you have a tight ball. Tie the top with some string and suspend the ball overnight. The author ties it to the tap.
You will end up with yogurt of a very thick consistency, which is known in the Eastern Med as suzme. You will have about 1 1/2 cups. Cover and refrigerate overnight.
On the day you will serve it, place the suzme in a bowl with the goat cheese and combine until smooth. Put aside about 2 tablespoons each of the chopped and ground pistachios.
Shape the mixture into thick ovals, using a generous teaspoonful at a time. Roll a third of the ovals in the za’atar, coating each one generously, and put aside. Repeat this with the remaining ovals, rolling half in the sumac and half in the pistachios. When making the pistachio ovals, for variety of textures, you can roll some in ground pistachios, some in chopped pistachios, and some with both.
Arrange all the ovals on a platter, sprinkle with the remaining pistachios, season and serve with greens and warm bread.
“Purple Citrus and Sweet Perfume” is my new favorite cookbook! Wonderful, elegant recipes and the richest, most gorgeous food photography I have seen.
(Lynne Foster lives in Hatteras village with her husband, Ernie. Together they operate The Albatross Fleet of charter boats. They actively support the sustainable practices of the island’s commercial fishermen and the preservation of Hatteras Island’s working waterfront. Both love to cook seafood and entertain friends, and Lynne loves to experiment with recipes for locally caught seafood.)