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.
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.