Labneh with Za'atar and honey

Labneh? Za'atar? What the WHAAT? Strange names, unfamiliar to some or many, but simply put they are just - cheese and herbs! It's wonderful to think just a few simple ingredients can create such a delicious and healthy snack that is also versatile. Both can be used across a range of dishes. You can buy labneh and Za'atar at good delicatessens of course, but if you feel inspired, why not check out the recipes below and give them a shot yourself at home? Your total ingredients lists includes yoghurt, thyme, oregano, marjoram, sumac, sesame seeds, salt and honey. Everything except the yoghurt becomes stores in your pantry for other recipes, and you can make a batch of Za-atar to sprinkle on everything from flat breads, to chicken to BBQ corn cobs to .... labneh!

The DIY Za'atar recipe

Za'atar is actually the name of a species of thyme that grows wild on hillsides in Israel, however you can get the same sense of flavour using whatever thyme is most accessible to you. A single batch uses ¼ cup of sumac as the base - available at delis and even some supermarkets now. It also includes 2 tablespoons each of dried thyme, oregano and marjoram, 1 tablespoon of toasted sesame seeds and 1 teaspoon of sea salt. Spoon all the ingredients into a small storage jar, put the lid on and give it a good shake to combine. That's it! You can toss chicken or lamb in Za'atar before pan frying or barbecuing it, or sprinkle it on anything you want to add an extra depth of savoury flavour to.

It's particular nice sprinkled over freshly made labneh, that's been drizzled with honey, which brings us to our next recipe .....

Home made labneh

Have you ever made labneh at home? Do you know what it is? It's a delicious, healthy, easy to DIY kind of cheese, originating in the Middle East. All you need is good quality natural yoghurt (full fat Greek is best), a bowl and something to strain it with.

Basically you want to secure the yoghurt in some kind of permeable material that can be suspended over a bowl to catch the liquid that runs out of it. I've tried a variety of things - a chux cloth, with a rubber band around the top, hanging from a hook fixed to the back of the shelf in the fridge. I've also used cheesecloth (yes that's what it's for - hence the name) and suspended that from a hook in my kitchen, with a bowl underneath. At the moment, I'm repurposing an old ricotta tub. I bought some fresh ricotta cheese awhile back from the supermarket that came in it's own plastic tub with a fitted strainer (pictured above left). I washed it after the ricotta was finished and have used it ever since for labneh. I secure the strainer above the drainage bowl by poking a fondue fork through the middle of it to suspend it so the liquid can adequately drain out - it works perfectly.

Depending on the yoghurt you use, the labneh can take anywhere from 8 to 36 hours to be 'ready'. It also depends on your personal taste too in terms of texture and consistency. I like mine very dry, with a solid texture, almost like goats cheese - where others prefer it to be more like ricotta in texture. Sometimes if the yoghurt is particularly wet, the cloth method is better, as you can squeeze the liquid out manually a few times during the draining process.

Storage and serving suggestions

Once it's done, you can spoon the labneh onto a flat plate and eat immediately with crackers or veggie sticks. If you want it for later to serve with other things, you can store it in a glass jar drizzled with some olive oil and a little salt and pepper for seasoning. If you're feeling creative, you can roll it (with hands) or form it (with spoons) into small bite sized balls then roll those in Za'atar, chilli flakes, sumac, salt and lemon zest, cracked pepper, or fresh herbs. As pictured above, we rolled ours in chilli flakes, za'atar and sumac for our most recent batch. The balls can be stored in a jar, then topped up with olive oil to preserve them. A fresh garlic clove popped in will also flavour them lightly over time.

We however, have a favourite go-to for serving labneh and that is fresh, in a dish, sprinkled with Za-atar and drizzled with whatever Honey in the Garden honey we're in the mood for that day, then spread the whole lot on bread or crackers. A great main dish is also grilled or barbecued chilli chicken, with generous dollops of labneh on top, sprinkled with fresh mint and pomegranate seeds then drizzled ALL OVER with lashings of honey. The combination of the heat of chilli, with the sweet of honey and the cool of the labneh makes this dish irresistible! Labneh is a great addition to a dip platter, a charcuterie board, a grazing table or a picnic basket. It's also a good healthy protein option if you want to boost your lunch dish -just add a tablespoon of it, or a few rolled balls, or crumble it if it's dry enough, into a leafy green salad packed with veggies and tossed with a delicious dressing. It's also great on top of tomato or pumpkin soup, or served with a greek style slow roasted lamb.