Alex and I love crazy, inventive dishes and exotic flavors, but when it comes down to it, simplicity reigns in our style of home cooking. So it was no surprise that this creamy marinara pasta caught our eye when we received the new cookbook Yogurt Culture by our friend Cheryl Sternman Rule. We don’t eat pasta often, but a slow-simmered tomato sauce combined with creamy yogurt and topped with peppery basil sounded enticing.
The book is dedicated entirely to yogurt, and while that might sound overwhelming, the recipe ideas are varied and inventive: fruit compote toppings, savory Mediterranean yogurt dips with olive oil and lemon, lamb kebabs, mocha cupcakes–everything from sweet to savory to in between. I read a lot of cookbooks, so it’s meaningful when I say I truly enjoyed immersing myself in the pages of this book. What surprised me was the significant use of yogurt in Mediterranean dishes (my favorite cuisine), which for whatever reason I was not expecting, thinking a yogurt cookbook might simply be a list of granola and fruit toppings. Cheryl’s writing voice is clear and comforting, and her instructions are thoughtful. Even from this simple pasta recipe, you can sense her culinary finesse, for example choosing to temper the thick yogurt with a bit of the warm marinara sauce before mixing it all together.
This pasta was fabulous; it’s a bit like a vodka sauce without the vodka. It coated the pasta perfectly with just the right amount of creaminess, which we admire after ending up with many dry pastas after failed recipe attempts. We had a long list of other recipes from the book to make, but kept coming back to this one. It’s perfect for a summer evening on the patio – and our leftovers even managed to reheat well (a feat with pasta!).
I was also able to catch up with Cheryl about the book, who as lovely and kind in person as she is in her book. I’m a huge fan of her writing and inventive recipes, so it was a pleasure to have a little Q&A about cooking, health and yogurt! The interview is below. And if you’re interested in more yogurt recipes, Cheryl has started a site with a compilation of yogurt recipes and information: head over to Team Yogurt. Thanks again to Cheryl for her time, friendship, and a truly inspiring book.
Sonja: So, an entire cookbook on yogurt! What inspired you to dedicate a book to this ingredient?
Cheryl: The original idea came from my agent, Jenni Ferrari-Adler, who had an inkling it might be a good fit for me. What she may not have realized, though, was just how perfect a fit it really was. I’ve been an avid yogurt-eater my entire life. I made yogurt all the time when I served in the Peace Corps. And I have a fascination with global food traditions. This one ingredient tapped into all those realms. It was, and continues to be, a dream topic for me.
Sonja: Is yogurt considered “healthy”? What makes it a healthful food?
Cheryl: Absolutely, yes. At its core, yogurt is simply milk and good bacteria. (Of course, you can make and buy non-dairy yogurts, but I’ll talk about dairy here.) Yogurt is a great source of protein, calcium, and probiotics, plus it contains B vitamins, vitamin D, potassium, magnesium, and zinc. I always hesitate to list out that long list of nutrients because they’re not really my focus. Yogurt’s just one of these foods that’s all-around great for you. That said, calcium, protein, and probiotics really do have substantial health benefits, so people who are motivated by cleaning up their diets or introducing nutrient-dense foods would do well to eat lots of (plain) yogurt.
Sonja: What’s a good way to flavor yogurt at home, instead of buying artificially-flavored brands?
Cheryl: The first chapter in Yogurt Culture is called Flavor. I created those recipes specifically to flavor plain yogurt in interesting ways with easy-to-make compotes and mix-ins. So whether you’re making strawberry-rhubarb compote or roasted blueberry compote or burnt-sugar apricots, you can keep these homemade flavorings in a jar in the fridge and mix and match them with plain yogurt.
And, of course, I provide savory options as well, relying on things like olive oil, spices, garlic, and salt, to name just a few. The rest of the book gives 115 recipes for what to do with plain yogurt. I really want to inspire people to use this incredibly accessible, versatile food in new ways.
Sonja: We love your recipe style of home cooking with flavorful whole foods. How did you become interested in cooking this way?
Cheryl: Once I really, really learned to cook (I went to culinary school in 2002-2003), I pretty much lost my taste for convenience foods. It was easy to just start building my food writing career at that point based on whole foods because that’s what I was cooking for myself and my family.
Sonja: What’s your favorite recipe from the book?
Cheryl: Probably the Greek Yogurt with Lemon Vinaigrette. It’s assertive, refreshing, surprising, beautiful, and takes less than five minutes to make. I love recipes that pack a flavor punch with such minimal effort!
- 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 medium onion, grated or finely chopped
- 2 garlic cloves smashed and minced
- 28-ounce can tomato puree (we used San Marzano variety)
- Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
- ½ cup plain whole-milk Greek yogurt, at room temperature
- Crushed red pepper
- 1 pound bucatini pasta
- Torn fresh basil leaves, for garnish
- Make the sauce: In a large saucepan, warm 2 tablespoons of the oil over medium-low heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft and translucent, 8 to 10 minutes. Toss in the garlic and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Pour in the tomato puree and season generously with salt and pepper. Bring to a bubble, then reduce the heat and maintain a low summer so that the flavors can fully develop, 30 to 40 minutes, giving a stir when you think of it. Remove from the heat and let cool for about 10 minutes.
- Temper the yogurt: In a small bowl, whisk the remaining 1 tablespoon oil into the yogurt. Whisk in ½ cup of the warm sauce to temper the yogurt. Scrape the yogurt mixture back into the saucepan whisking to incorporate fully. Taste, adding more salt and pepper, and the crushed red pepper.
- Serve: Boil the pasta in plenty of salted water according to the package instructions. At the end of cooking, set aside ½ cup of the pasta water. Using a slotted spoon or tongs, slowly transfer the hot pasta to the tomato sauce, tossing to coat. Drizzle in a tablespoon or two of the reserved pasta water, or more if desired, to loosen. Server hot, garnished with the basil.