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Updated Friday, November 16, 2012 at 03:31 PM

Chef Matt Dillon's homemade yogurt: You can make it, too!

By Catherine M. Allchin
Special to The Seattle Times

LOCAL CHEF Matt Dillon, winner of the 2012 James Beard Award for Best Chef Northwest, has taken farm-to-table dining to a new level of excellence in Seattle. His restaurants, Sitka & Spruce and The Corson Building, feel like cozy old homes where you can enjoy thoughtfully prepared hyper-local fare.

Earlier this year, I was lucky enough to attend a private benefit dinner at The Corson Building. At the restaurant in industrial Georgetown, there might be a dog barking upstairs, or a freight train screaming yards away, or a suckling pig roasting in the outdoor fireplace — or all of this happening at once — as you savor Dillon's creative food at a rustic table with mismatched cutlery. He is a master of juxtapositions, teaching us to expect the unexpected.

Before our feast, Dillon invited us into the kitchen and showed us how to make yogurt. This man is passionate about many things — working with farmers, creating memorable shared experiences, foraging in the woods, supporting local music. Less obvious may be his interest in making and eating yogurt.

"It's living food going into your body. There's energy there." Dillon points out that some people, like himself, benefit from the bacteria in yogurt even if they have issues with dairy. "Adding bacteria into your system helps you digest food." Yogurt is a staple in both of his restaurants and in his home. He tries to eat it every day, usually with nuts or with chicken and rice, and often uses it like aioli or mayonnaise.

At his restaurants, yogurt appears in various interpretations: accompanying whole turnips and tarragon, with beets in borani or served simply with fruit and nuts.

Fascinated by Middle Eastern cuisine, Dillon remembers visiting the Shouf Valley in Lebanon and seeing strained yogurt — or lebneh — hanging in small bags in almond trees. He began making yogurt in this "Middle Eastern grandmother style," and later he and Corson Building chef de cuisine Emily Crawford refined the process.

Today the two restaurants turn out big batches of yogurt (from six gallons of milk) twice a week. It also will be a featured item at Dillon's new venture, Bar Sajor, which is expected to open soon in Pioneer Square.

Here he shares his technique with home cooks.

Catherine M. Allchin is a Seattle freelance writer. Ken Lambert is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

Matt Dillon's Homemade Yogurt

1 quart whole milk

¼ cup whole-milk yogurt (as a starter)

Up to 1 quart purified water

1. In a nonreactive pot, heat the milk over medium heat to 180 degrees. Pour the milk into a stainless-steel container and immediately submerge into an ice bath to lower the temperature to about 100-110 degrees. Remove from ice bath and whisk in the starter yogurt.

2. Cover the container and hold this milk at or near 110 degrees for 6 to 8 hours, or until the yogurt has set, by creating a double boiler over a pilot light on the stove, or by wrapping the container in a blanket or heating pad. When set, it will appear firm, like Jell-O.

3. Once set, put the yogurt in the refrigerator for eight hours or overnight. To separate the creamy yogurt from the whey, line a colander or strainer with several layers of cheesecloth, then suspend the colander over a bucket to catch the whey. Let strain in the refrigerator for several hours for yogurt or several days for lebneh (yogurt cheese).

4. To loosen the yogurt, remove from the cheesecloth into a stainless-steel bowl. Add cold purified water and whisk to desired consistency.

Remember to save ¼ cup for the next batch.


KEN LAMBERT / THE SEATTLE TIMES
At The Corson Building, chef/owner Matt Dillon serves up his house-made yogurt with olive oil, nuts, seeds and Italian plums from his garden.




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