Not to sound like a dinosaur, but I miss the good old days when Ramazan would roll around in the cool, crisp winter and we’d wake in the middle of the night shivering, the tips of our noses frozen numb. Those were simpler times of racing my brother and sister to the lounge, hoping to claim the toastiest spot in front of the enormous gas heater.
Those were the magical years of sitting down, still sleepy-eyed, on a colorful dastarkhwan laid out with a sehri-time feast.
Of course, now, thanks to record-breaking heat, I have no such notions. I mean, is it just me or is consuming anything more than a dry piece of toast and gallons of water at a pre-dawn meal actually a very real struggle? Plus, with the holy month coming to a close soon and temperatures still soaring, I’m guessing the prospect of breakfast isn’t going to inspire much enthusiasm either.
Thank God, my grandmother taught me well and I’ve finally got a fix for all those early morning woes.
See, on those chilly nights, while we all sat cross-legged on the floor, crowding around bal-wala parathas, and spicy desi-style scrambled eggs studded with soft tomatoes, sweet onions, cumin, and plenty of green chilis, and leftover saalan and daal, and sticky-sweet french toast, Nano’s pre-Roza ritual defied all the norms of stuffing oneself silly.
She would quietly spend a few minutes pretending to nibble on the stodgy fare and then, sure as the rising sun, she’d abandon ship for her standard bowl of fresh unsweetened yogurt.
I found her minimalist choice earth-shatteringly boring!
Why would you eat a bowl of bland white goo when ghee-shakkar and makhni roti were up for grabs? Really, why?
Well, now that I’m older and smarter and have serious acid reflux issues, I’ll tell you why.
Yogurt is cool, healthy, refreshing, and it’s packed with good-for- you bacteria that helps soothe that gross bubbly feeling you get in your gut when you’ve gone empty-stomached for too long. And in the sweltering summer, it’s a wonderfully light, low-calorie, belly-soothing sehri option that will keep you full and your tummy in check through an endless day of fasting.
I’m still against the bowl of blah, though.
My solution? Labneh!
An incredibly versatile middle-eastern cheese, labneh is made by straining yogurt to remove the whey or liquid. What’s left behind is a tangy, creamy ball of soft, spreadable goodness that’s so delicious and simple to make, you’ll wonder why you haven’t been doing this all your life.
It’s become my favorite sehri super-food and I definitely plan to make it a breakfast table staple too.
There’s no such thing as too much cheese, right?
Bonus for the health-conscious: labneh contains less fat and clocks in at almost half the calories of regular cream cheese! Awwwyyyiiiisss!
On its own, the cheese is soft, smooth, and has a salty, palate-pleasing tang, but if you’re looking for something with a little more pizzaz, try throwing in some fresh or dried herbs, garlic, or whatever else strikes your fancy. I prefer to leaving it plain, serving condiments, herbs, sliced veggies, fresh fruit and berries, jams, honey, olive oil, and some nice, crusty bread on the side. That way everyone can customize to their hearts content.
Labneh smeared thick on lightly toasted multi-grain bread, topped with fresh greens, flaky sea salt, freshly cracked pepper, a squeeze of lemon juice, a pinch or two of sumac, and a drizzle of olive oil. Now that’s my idea of a super-powered sehri!
Serving Tip: If you ride the french-toast- train and can’t live without a sugar-hit at sehri, try topping your cheese with honey or your favorite jam or compote. Or go the extra mile with fresh sliced fruit. Berries and stone fruits such as peaches, plums, and nectarines work beautifully.
Labneh: Strained Yogurt Cheese (makes about 1.5 cups)
4 cups unsweetened yogurt (I highly recommend Anhaar brand yogurt)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1) Line a large sieve with two layers of muslin and place over a large bowl. Make sure the base of the sieve does not touch the bottom of the bowl or the yogurt will not strain properly. To avoid this kind of water contact, I place my muslin-lined sieve over a large saucepan instead of a bowl simply because the depth of the pan allows the whey to drain completely.
2) Stir the salt into the yogurt. I highly recommend Anhaar Unsweetened Yogurt for this particular recipe. I’ve tried several other commercial brands for comparison and this one consistently produces light, creamy, flavorful cheese with just the right hint of the yogurt’s signature sour note, but feel free to substitute with your favorite brand.
3) Pour the salted yogurt into the muslin. Gather the ends of the muslin and tie the top to create a pouch for the yogurt. Gently squeeze out as much of the whey as possible.
4) Place the yogurt in the refrigerator to drain for 12-48 hours. The longer the yogurt is strained, the firmer the resulting labneh will be. I find 24 hours makes the perfect cheese.
Storage Tip: To maximize the life of your labneh, roll into 3/4 inch balls, place in a jar (or any other spill-proof container), pour in enough olive to cover the cheese, cap on the lid and refrigerate. Stored like this, your labneh should last for up to 2 weeks.