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The Boston Globe

Food & dining

Cookbook review

In cooking, yogurt is versatile and often invisible

Hiltrud Schulz

Ashriek echoed through the house, emanating from the general direction of the kitchen. “You’re not testing that book!” cried my 12-year-old, who gladly eats fish eyes and tentacles but loathes yogurt above all things. In fact, I had already been testing “The Yogurt Cookbook” for two days, but had forgotten just once to lay it face down on the counter so my son wouldn’t notice. Over those two days, he had already consumed a good pint of yogurt without even knowing.

The late author and restaurateur Arto Der Haroutunian, born in Syria and a resident of London, wrote a dozen volumes until his death in 1987. This book is a reissue of an earlier cookbook, with new photography.

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The brilliant thing about yogurt, as we discover in “The Yogurt Cookbook,” is that it’s not only ubiquitous, it’s also versatile — and often invisible. In cuisines extending from Southern Europe through the Caucasus, the Middle East and South Asia, yogurt is a dairy default that does what cream, butter, sour cream, and farmer’s cheese do in other cultures. “The Yogurt Cookbook” explores yogurt cooked every which way, including making it yourself.

The many recipes I tried opened up great, yogurty vistas of food preparation, even though I disagreed with each one just a little bit. Green peppers stuffed with meat and yogurt have the kind of savory filling you want to eat on its own, especially since it only fills the peppers halfway and you then have a lot of soft, bland, cooked pepper to get through.

A version of an Indian korma gets the same soul-stirring blend of warm spices one finds in garam masala, generously sauced with yogurt. You don’t need a half-teaspoon of ground saffron (which would be several large, costly pinches before grinding) as called for in the recipe; with saffron, less is more, and a half-teaspoon of threads is probably what was meant.

“Drunken chicken” is lightly spiced with fenugreek and marjoram, and braised in brandy, flavorful without tasting soused. Shrimp pathia is a rewarding, rich, quick coconut curry, though goodness knows shrimp should not cook for 30 minutes. In these and other recipes, you’re supposed to “stabilize” the yogurt by beating in eggs or flour, and that’s supposed to prevent it from curdling over heat. It didn’t work even once, but the taste is just as satisfying even when the curdled sauces are unsightly.

A large portfolio of vegetable recipes accessorized with yogurt seem to brim with health, though as with the shrimp, I can’t think why one would need to boil spinach for 10 minutes till “just cooked.” The resulting salad, though, is nicely textured with crisp walnuts, and dollops of yogurt. Mushrooms on toast are better cooked with sour cream (which the yogurt replaces), but they’re still hard to resist.

The Estate of Arto der Haroutunian

Arto der Haroutunian.

Fried carrots get a dusting of flour, which develops into a surprisingly pleasing crust, underscored by the dark bite of caraway and the brighter bite of mint. Potatoes with yogurt and chives are a sort of potato souffle, and if the dense potato seems like an odd match for an airy souffle, well, it is. Folding the whites into the potatoes is like an awkward first date between two elements that just don’t want to go together. It tastes fine, but not appreciably lighter than properly done mashed potatoes. But the garlic yogurt sauce that goes with a green bean dish is good enough to eat on just about anything, including the basil and green pepper that hide among the beans.

The only undeniable disappointment is an apricot and yogurt custard, thickened by cooking with egg yolk and chilled to set. There’s no added sweetness beyond a bit of brown sugar on the top, and the soaked, dried apricots have a swampy texture that’s hard to love. It makes a poor dessert, but it can pass for something you might eat with granola.

One very quirky element: A line in the introduction states that all recipes serve four unless otherwise stated, and indeed, the recipes are not marked with how many they serve.

All in all, “The Yogurt Cookbook” offers a great many good ideas, a number of recipes that need a bit of reading between the lines, and a few happy hours of reading. Is it a book worth coming home with 4 quarts of yogurt for? Maybe. But get a box of granola while you’re at it, just in case.

T. Susan Chang can be reached at admin@tsusanchang.com.
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