Yogurt Cucumber Salad with Mint

When I’ve envisioned the story of my grandmother’s arranged marriage in Lebanon, and her immediate, teary-eyed departure to the United States with her new husband, one of the more lighthearted among the many serious thoughts I’ve had about her journey is that she carried with her the makings for laban (pronounced LUH-bin). Laban, which is simply yogurt, is on the table as a savory accompaniment for most every Lebanese meal (breakfast, lunch, dinner) and it’s made using a culture—a starter, or rawbi—from the last batch of yogurt.

Back when Nabeha, that grandmother who in fact I never had the good fortune to meet because of her untimely death at the age of 49, started up her own kitchen in Michigan after leaving Lebanon, I like to think that she brought some of her mother’s rawbi with her so that she could make good laban here. It might have survived the boat ride over without refrigeration, and it would have given her a connection to her home, to her mother, to the life she left behind at the tender age of seventeen. She didn’t want the marriage, didn’t want to go to the United States, and didn’t want to leave the boy she was in love with behind. She cried rivers. Her father felt pangs of regret for forcing the arrangement with such swift certainty upon the inconsolable Nabeha, so he sent her little brother with her to the United States as a solace. I wonder how his wife felt about that. Probably he slept on the couch for the remainder of their lives. But I digress. This is a story you’ll want to hear and I’ll want to tell, but it is a story for another day.

If Nabeha brought with her and used her mother’s starter to make her laban, and then if her daughters (let’s face it, the men didn’t make the laban) used starter from their mother’s laban to get their own line of yogurt going, and then if I took some of the yogurt from these aunts of mine to get my yogurt going…well, you can see that it’s possible for the laban to live as long as a family does, following the branches of the family tree as far as the tree is willing and able to grow.

I may not have children to contribute to the family tree, but I do make laban every week, and can pass the rawbi along as one of my little offerings. It’s possible you’ll find you can’t run next door to get a cup of good strong rawbi from a neighbor, so you can simply buy some whole milk plain yogurt and it will work well for your starter. My mom who is sitting here next to me (that’s her taking a scoop of laban, above) wants me to tell you that you can, if you want, just skip making the yogurt altogether and use store-bought yogurt for the yogurt-cucumber salad. But Mom, I said, that’s the whole point—it’s a blog with recipes. But honey, she said, people are busy. And she is right.

Yogurt Cucumber Salad with Mint, or Laban Khiyar

One of the best ways to eat laban in summer is garlicky and chilled, with slices of cucumber (the small ones, for pickling, are sweetest with tender skins), and na’na—spearmint, both fresh and dried, which we talked about earlier this week. If you were expecting a more traditional green salad when I promised a salad recipe for mint, no worries…I’ll be writing soon about the ultimate tabbouleh salad. If you are using store-bought yogurt for the salad (no judgments, I promise), you can skip right to that part of the recipe below.

For the laban:
½ gallon whole milk
½ cup rawbi, or plain whole milk yogurt with live cultures, room temperature

Rinse a heavy 4-quart pot with cold water. Every Lebanese woman I know does this to help prevent scorching; I don’t question it. Pour the milk in and gently heat on medium-low until the milk just about comes to a boil, frothing and rising in the pot (210 degrees), 30-45 minutes. Remove from the heat immediately. You’ll notice a skin has formed on top. You can either remove and discard this, or stir it in. I stir mine in.

Let the milk cool until you can stir your finger in the milk for 10 seconds (110-115 degrees—but my Sitto never, ever used a thermometer. Her hand was quite accurate). Temper the rawbi by stirring two large spoons of the milk into it, one at a time and stirring thoroughly after each one. Pour the rawbi into the milk and stir gently but thoroughly, without scraping the bottom of the pot.

Cover the pot, transfer to the oven (turned off) or any warm spot, and lay a kitchen towel over it. Let the yogurt incubate, undisturbed, for eight hours or overnight. Then chill it for at least three hours (preferably a whole day) with a clean, thin bread towel (or paper towels that can be used with food) tucked directly against the surface of the yogurt, to absorb some of the liquid (whey) and thicken it up a bit.

At this point you can transfer to another container, whisking the yogurt until smooth. We’ll go into more detail on how to make thick, drained yogurt (labneh) in a future post, because it’s is so mouth-watering and so essential. You can also read about it in a story I wrote for Saveur.

For the yogurt-cucumber salad with mint:
This dish is fairly thin, so you may want to serve it in small bowls.

2 cups plain yogurt, or laban
2 garlic cloves, minced (always remove the green sprout in the middle of the clove before mincing as it will mistreat the taste of anything it’s in)
½ t salt
2 t dried mint, crushed to a powder, plus more for garnish
2 T fresh mint, finely chopped
3 cups quartered, sliced cucumber

In a medium bowl, combine the yogurt with the garlic, salt, dried and fresh mint. Stir in the cucumbers. Taste to see if it needs more of anything; I usually want more mint. And it’s done!

Flavors in this develop over time, so you may want to make this a few hours ahead and chill. This is delicious on its own or as a side dish with lamb, chicken, fish (especially salmon), lentils, grilled vegetables or even a hamburger if you can get your mind off of french fries, which isn’t easy. The salad stays nice, and the cucumbers crunchy, for a good four days in the refrigerator.

My cucumbers taste so delicious up here in northern Michigan because they come from Bill’s farm, where he has a farm market (it’s like that here: Bill’s Farm Market, Chuck’s Appliances, Mary Ellen’s cafe…). This is my favorite barn at Bill’s. In these parts it’s not so strange to have a favorite barn.

Find a PDF of this recipe here.

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19 Responses to Yogurt Cucumber Salad with Mint

  1. How funny! My grandmother’s name was Nabeeha also! I almost named my daughter Nabeeha too, well, good thing I did not and spared her a lifetime of explaining and spelling her name to people (my fate). I was very close to my tèta, and her name is a perfect description of her personality, so wise.
    Anyway, she used to make the laban too every week and wrap it in a blue blanket. Your site is terrific and I can’t wait to read and see more! :)

  2. Patti Markho says:

    Maureen, this cucumber salad sounds absolutely refreshing and scrumptious. Wish I could sit on your front porch in HS with a great big bowl of it to enjoy. I can’t wait to hear more of your recipes and stories :) )

  3. I love this story, and you tell it well.

  4. MMM says:

    Maureen, this recipe was fabulous. The kids enjoyed it, too, thinking it was a desert–wow–nicely done in pleasing everyone!

  5. Sue OConnor says:

    Maureen – I’m loving this blog… it’s reminding me of the recipes my own Sitto used to make for me when she was still alive — and some are things she made that I never learned to cook, so it’s a great resource for me too…. bringing back lots of memories. Nice to see a fellow SMCer following their dream! Thanks for sharing!

    Sue

  6. Sofia Perez says:

    I am imagining that I am sitting on the grass right now, looking out at your favorite barn, eating some laban (instead of sweltering here in NYC). And I can’t wait to hear the rest of your grandmother’s story.

  7. Rose Roche says:

    Hi Maureen, I am a old friend of your Aunt Pat and your mom. I have always loved the food you write about, first eating it at the Abood homes of Lansing. I have made some effort to cook it over the years so your blog, recipes, stories and pictures delight me. Say hello to your mom. Rose Roche

    • Maureen Abood says:

      Rose, I just read your lovely message to my mother, and she send you her love! Thank you for reading and sharing—

  8. Anna says:

    Hey you! Loving your blog. Wondering if you’ve ever made your yogurt with anything other than whole milk…2% or 1%? Will it work? Possibly take longer to drain into labneh?

    • Maureen Abood says:

      Anna!! Great to hear from you. Absolutely you can use lower fat milk for the yogurt. It will turn out great. The drain time won’t be too terribly impacted. Let me know how yours comes out! And let’s catch up soon–

  9. Rose Roche says:

    Dear Maureen, I love you blog. Yes II do want new posts. I enjoy the food of you family and have tried to make it. Your details will help me so much. I got connected to you by your aunt Pat. I’m not sure if you got my other comment or not. I sent it two or three days ago. Have you posted sense then? Please say hello to your mother for me. Thank-you. Rose Roche

    • Maureen Abood says:

      Hi Rose, I did respond to your comment the other day–sorry you didn’t see it. I am posting most days–you can subscribe to receive emails about my posts by signing up in the Subscribe field at the top of the right column. My mom sends her warmest regards to you! Thank you for reading!

  10. dennis says:

    Maureen….I love your recipies and sharing about your family history. You take me back to when my mom was alive. I remember as a little boy watching her make luban in the kitchen. She would set it on the floor next to the stove with a towel over it and tell me to stay away from it. She said any slight disturbance will not let the luban set properly. I love your shares and the feelings I get from them. Keep up the great work!

  11. My Sittoo’s name was ALSO Nabeha! Guess it was a common name at the time! She was known informally as Dolly, but she always wore a gold brooch pin with an “N” in script on most of her dresses. Your blog is just wonderful and I strive to emulate your easy style of story telling. Namaste!

    • Maureen Abood says:

      Thanks so much Stacia for your kind words–and how great about Nabeha/Dolly and her golden “N” brooch!

 

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