The Greeks have a few different words for what we call “yogurt,” which makes sense, because yogurt is a major part of their diet and over the millenia they’ve been eating it, they’ve recognized that there are several different kinds. Today, a decent-quality supermarket in America now includes American-style yogurt, Greek yogurt, Icelandic yogurt, drinkable yogurt, yogurt with various toppings, and yogurt with disastrous neon colorings and flavorings.
This is fine. Good, even. I like almost all of those yogurts! But because American-style yogurt, which is thin, mild, and usually sugary and/or heavily flavored, was by far the most popular variety of yogurt in this country up until just a few years ago, it still colors the way we think of all yogurt. Which means that Greek yogurt is often mistakenly treated the way we would treat American-style yogurt. This is obviously wrong. Greek yogurt is best thought of not as a yogurt, but as a soft white cheese.
In Greece, there is a strained fermented dairy product called “straggisto” which is fairly similar to what is branded as Greek yogurt here. In fact, most of the Mediterranean and Middle East has some variety of strained yogurt-type product. Straggisto yogurt in Greece is sometimes mixed with honey or fruit preserves in the way that we will sometimes drizzle goat cheese with honey. But more often than not, it appears in a savory dish: tzatziki, a mixture of yogurt with chopped cucumbers, olive oil, and sometimes lemon and/or herbs.
That’s not to eliminate all sweet Greek yogurt dishes; soft cheeses, which include creme fraiche, cream cheese, and ricotta, are great in some desserts. What they are NOT great in is American yogurt dishes. Like parfaits. For the love of god, stop putting Greek yogurt in a bowl and topping it with fruit and granola. Imagine sticking a blob of cream cheese in a bowl and covering it in granola. That’s what Greek yogurt parfaits are. A yogurt parfait works with American-style yogurt because it is airy, sweet, and has not been drained of most of its water and lactose; the yogurt is comparatively mild, won’t overpower the other flavors, and has a high water content so it mixes easily.
Greek yogurt, on the other hand, works well with vegetables, with meats, with herbs and spices. It adds creaminess and fattiness and a bit of tang, which makes it a great helper for vegetable dishes. That’s assuming you buy the right yogurt, which many people do not. Full-fat Fage is the best option that can be found almost anywhere. The zero percent Fage yogurt is also very good, but it can be crumbly, so it won’t work as well for certain dishes. Any of the major American-style yogurt brands’ attempts, like Dannon’s “Oikos” or Chobani, are total bullshit.
Once you’ve got the right yogurt, it’s easy to use. It might feel weird using something from the yogurt aisle in savory dishes, but an easy way to use it is to simply replace various other soft white dairy products with Greek yogurt. Any recipe that calls for creme fraiche, sour cream, or cream cheese can almost certainly be made in exactly the same way with Greek yogurt. Many more cheese-like dairy products will work too — goat cheese, ricotta, queso blanco, and even feta, sometimes. It also works, rarely, in place of mayonnaise.
Asparagus With Herbed Yogurt And Roasted Almonds
Shopping list: Asparagus, Greek yogurt, garlic, olive oil, parsley, thyme, chives, lemons, raw almonds, butter, sugar, cumin, cayenne
Pre-heat the oven to 375 degrees. In a small saucepan, melt two tablespoons of butter. Add in a pinch of sugar, a pinch of cumin, and a smaller pinch of cayenne and stir to combine. Toss in a handful of almonds and stir until they’re all coated. Spread evenly on a baking sheet and roast in the oven for about ten minutes, until fragrant and toasted. Eat one to see if it’s done; it should be crisp, not cardboard-y the way raw almonds are, but not burnt. Try not to eat too many of them.
Take a microplane grater and grate two cloves of garlic into a bowl. Add in one small container of Greek yogurt. Chop a bunch of herbs very very finely; the ones I listed are just a suggestion, pretty much anything works. Add the herbs to the yogurt. Squeeze half a lemon’s worth of juice into the yogurt, and pour in a tablespoon of olive oil. Stir to combine and let sit.
Put a cast iron pan on the stove over medium-high heat. Chop off the woody ends of the asparagus but keep the rest of the stalks whole. When the pan is hot, pour in a tablespoon or so of olive oil and, before the oil starts smoking, throw in the asparagus. Turn frequently; you want a little bit of char, but they should still be firm and crisp. Shouldn’t take longer than three minutes. Salt and pepper to taste.
Lay the asparagus down on a plate. Spoon the yogurt sauce over it and scatter the almonds over the top. Finish with a drizzle of olive oil and/or lemon juice if desired.
Beets And Toasted Israeli Couscous With Harissa Yogurt
Shopping list: Red beets, Israeli couscous, red harissa, Greek yogurt, radishes, arugula (alternately: get beets with the greens attached), fresh mint, olive oil, orange, red wine vinegar
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spread the dried Israeli couscous as evenly on a baking tray as you can; they’ll roll around but don’t worry about it too much. Put it in the oven for about five minutes, watching carefully, until golden. Remove from oven and turn the heat up to 400 degrees.
Trim greens from beets, if they’re attached, and save them for later. Wrap each beet completely in aluminum foil and stick right on the bare rack of the oven. Roast for, I don’t know, forty-five minutes or so, until tender. Let cool, then peel. Wear gloves if you don’t want your hands to be pink for the next twelve hours. Chop beets into cubes.
Cook the couscous the way you normally would, which is to say like any other pasta: bring a pot of salted water to a boil, toss ’em in, cook until al dente, maybe seven minutes. Drain.
Squeeze half a small orange’s worth of juice into a container. Throw in a small container of Greek yogurt, and pour in a tablespoon or two of olive oil and a couple teaspoons of red wine vinegar. Mix thoroughly; it should be about the color of the beets. Also chop some mint, and slice some radishes.
To plate: put the toasted couscous down on the plate, scatter beets on top, stick the radishes in between the beets, pour the yogurt dressing all on top and around, and scatter the mint. Finish with a touch more olive oil.
Roasted Rhubarb With Sweetened Yogurt
Shopping list: Fresh rhubarb, white sugar, Greek yogurt, honey, fresh basil
Here’s how you do dessert with Greek yogurt. Pre-heat the oven to 400 degrees. Trim the ends of the rhubarb and chop the stalks into about four-inch pieces. Place them down on a baking sheet and scatter sugar all over them. The amount depends on the tartness of your rhubarb, but it shouldn’t ever be, like, covering the rhubarb. Maybe two teaspoons per stalk. Put in the oven and roast until very tender, maybe half an hour.
Mix your yogurt with honey in about a 3:1 ratio. Add salt, too. Chop some basil however you want to; a chiffonade is fine if you’re a shithead like me who wants to show off, or you can just tear it into smaller pieces with your bare hands. It’ll taste exactly the same.
To plate: in a bowl, place a few stalks of roasted rhubarb on one side, and tilt the pan to add some of the juices on top. Take a spoonful of the sweetened yogurt and put it on the other side. Add basil on top.
These recipes barely crack the surface of what you can do with Greek yogurt; one of my favorite stupid recipes is to mix it with cilantro and cumin in it and plop it on top of nachos, or add (with pickled onions and mustard) to a hot dog, or, hell, just mix in some olive oil and lemon and dip in any kind of bread product. This isn’t to argue that Greek yogurt isn’t spectacularly versatile; I’d merely suggest that it’s a mistake to treat it as if it was American-style yogurt. When you see “yogurt” you shouldn’t automatically think “breakfast.” You should think “cheese.”
Photo by Klearchos Kapoutsis