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So, what's the deal with Greek yogurt?

Is it something entirely different from other yogurts? Should you go out of your way to buy it? If your choice is between Greek yogurt from a national company or yogurt from a local company, what is the better choice?

For several years now, national advertising campaigns have touted the taste and nutritional benefits of Greek and Greek-style yogurt, infusing them with nearly magical powers.

Some of the TV commercials are hilarious, but they are also a tad misleading, as Greek yogurt is simply yogurt that has been drained of some of its whey. Think of it as being about halfway to yogurt cheese, which is very easy to make at home.

In Northern California, we are blessed with an abundance of delicious yogurts, and my recommendation is always to buy local first. You don't need to look beyond our borders for the best yogurt. You can choose from goat milk yogurt, sheep milk yogurt and yogurt made with cow's milk.

My default choice is Straus Organic Whole Milk Yogurt and I use a lot of it, in part because my two pups get a generous spoonful with either breakfast or dinner. They are quite small — Joey weighs about 10 pounds, Lark about 8 — and I want their diet to be as pure as possible; both nutrients and toxins concentrate in fat and so I use organic.

I also use Straus because it is convenient; the quart size is available in almost all locally owned markets.

Sometimes I use Bellwether Farms sheep yogurt, especially when I can find the large containers. Sometimes I buy a quart of Saint Benoit yogurt.

Redwood Hill Farm Dairy makes excellent goat milk yogurt, and I buy it when my daughter Nicolle visits from Mississippi, as she loves it. Her sister Gina, who lives with me, does not have a palate for anything with goat milk.

No matter what yogurt you buy, it should include just two ingredients, milk and live active cultures. Flavored yogurts are another matter, of course, but I don't buy them because I prefer the flexibility of adding my own ingredients or adding nothing at all. I love the pure taste of good yogurt.

If your preference is Greek-style yogurt, you have two local options. Straus Family Creamery now offers two versions, one made with whole milk, another with nonfat milk. In my opinion, the whole milk option is the healthier choice.

The other option is to make it using your favorite local yogurt. To do so, simply line a large strainer with a few layers of cheesecloth or a very clean thin tea towel, set it over a deep bowl and pour the yogurt into it. Stir it occasionally and let the whey drain until the yogurt reaches your preferred consistency. It won't take that long, maybe an hour or so. That's it, you have your own Greek-style yogurt.

You can use the whey to make lacto-fermented pickles and beverages. You can feed it to your neighbor's pigs or pour it into your garden, where the plants will benefit from the calcium. You can also use it as a tenderizing marinade for chicken and pork.

There is, of course, one other way to approach yogurt and that is to make your own from scratch. For instructions from the Seasonal Pantry archives, visit "Eat This Now" at pantry.blogs.pressdemocrat.com, where I will also post a recipe for yogurt cheese and other favorite yogurt dishes.

For more information about Recology programs on the North Coast, visit www.recology.com/recology-sonoma-marin/

This soup is based on a Middle Eastern recipe I came across several years ago. Since then, I've made it my own, using farro in place of bulgur wheat, omitting pine nuts because it is very hard to find any not from China, and adding a savory topping. If you do not eat wheat, you can use quinoa or black rice in place of the farro.

Chilled Yogurt Soup with Farro and Chickpeas

Makes 6 servings

3/4 cup farro, rinsed, soaked overnight and drained

Kosher salt

4 cups plain whole milk yogurt, such as Bellwether or Strauss

2 garlic cloves, crushed and minced

Zest of 1 lemon

1 1/2 cup cooked chickpeas or 1 14-ounce can of chickpeas, drained and rinsed

1/4 cup mint leaves, lightly packed, cut into very thin strips

2 tablespoons cilantro leaves

1 tablespoon za'atar or gomashio (see Note below)

2 tablespoons best-quality extra virgin olive oil, optional

Put the drained farro and a generous teaspoon of salt into a saucepan, cover with water by at least 1 inch and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to low and simmer gently until tender but not mushy, about 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, put the yogurt into a medium bowl or soup tureen and stir in the garlic, lemon zest, chickpeas, mint, cilantro and several very generous turns of black pepper. Cover and refrigerate.

When the farro is tender, remove it from the heat and drain off any liquid that has not been absorbed. Let cool to room temperature.

When the farro is sufficiently cool, stir it into the yogurt mixture.

Taste and correct for salt. If the soup seems a bit too thick for your tastes, thin it with a little water.

Ladle into soup plates and sprinkle with za'atar or gomashio. Drizzle with olive oil and serve immediately.

Note: Za'atar is a Middle Eastern spice blend of sesame seeds, dried sumac, salt and, sometimes, oregano. It has a slightly lemony flavor. Gomashio is a Japanese condiment of toasted dried seaweed, sesame seeds, salt and, sometimes, chiles. Za'atar is the traditional choice with this soup but if you don't have any, gomashio is a good substitute. If you want to make your own za'atar, do not use our domestic poison sumac.

Tzatziki is to Greek food what raita is to Indian food, a nearly ubiquitous condiment. Neither tzatziki nor raita is a sauce, and to call it, say, "tzatziki sauce" is incorrect, just as calling chai, the Indian word for tea, "chai tea" is incorrect. "Tzatziki sauce" would imply that a sauce was made using tzatziki as one of the ingredients. This version is traditional to the Greek isles and excellent served alongside fish, roasted chicken, leg of lamb, stews and rice dishes and makes a great appetizer with hot pita or other bread for dipping.


Makes about 2 cups

1 large or 2 small cucumbers, peeled, seeded and minced

Kosher salt

1 medium fennel bulb, trimmed, a few fronds saved

4 to 6 garlic cloves, minced

16 ounces whole milk yogurt of choice

Juice of 1 lemon

2 tablespoons snipped fresh chives

Put the cucumber into a medium bowl, add a generous teaspoon of salt, stir and transfer to a strainer set over a deep bowl. Let drain for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. After 20 minutes, press out as much remaining moisture as possible.

While the cucumber drains, grate the fennel on the large blade of a box grater. Put it in a medium mixing bowl, add the drained cucumber and the garlic.

Mince a few fennel fronds, enough to make about a tablespoon. Add to the bowl and stir in the yogurt, lemon juice and chives. Taste, correct for salt and serve immediately or refrigerate, covered, and use within 3 or 4 days.

Michele Anna Jordan hosts "Mouthful" each Sunday at 7 p.m. on KRCB 90.9 & 91.1 FM. E-mail Jordan at michele@micheleannajordan.com. You'll find her blog, "Eat This Now," at pantry.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.

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