When I was in Australia in 2005, dukkah was the new big thing (at least to me, if not to Australians, who had been blissfully aware of it for quite some time). Here in 2009, it's labna. Every food magazine through which I leaf, every restaurant where we stop, everyone features labna. And the other day, on Bennelong Point behind the Opera House, as Mom and I watched the ferries glide over the glittering Harbour and the groups of climbers ascend toward the summit of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, we swear we heard a man -- speaking another language -- utter the word "labna." We both heard it. "That man is talking about labna," we nudged and laughed to ourselves.
Though I am aware that I am a little late to the labna game, the first time I had this soft cheese made from Greek yogurt was last Tuesday afternoon, at a restaurant in the Hunter Valley at the Poole's Rock winery called the Firestick Cafe. There was a pizza on the menu: tomatoes, basil, labna. "What's labna?" we inquired of our cute server. She described it as soft cheese, like yogurt or mascarpone. I was intrigued, and ordered the labna pizza.
It was tasty: tangy, creamy, goat-cheesy. It was wonderful with the crisp pizza crust and sweet grape tomatoes. We spent a good deal of that meal talking about labna. Later, at The Smelly Cheese Shop in Polkolbin, we spied a jar of labna for sale. We decided we had to purchase it, bring it "home" with us to Penrith, and use it in a pasta dish and perhaps also on a pizza.
Brainstorming ideas for labna use, Greg suggested mixing it with pasta, caramelized red onions, tomatoes. I would add some kalamata olives and maybe harissa to that, but not everyone in our group is down with spicy foods. I suggested zucchini, lemon and thyme. I said, "But it needs something crunchy." Greg mentioned crisp bread crumbs, tossed throughout the dish. That was all that needed to be said.
We returned from the Hunter on Thursday afternoon and Kerrie promptly sped off to Woolworths to procure the necessary produce. A little while later I had produced a labna-centric dinner for us to share. It is such fun cooking in someone else's kitchen, though usually when I do that I am making a dish I know very well, as opposed to creating one on the spot. No matter; labna is versatile and you can't go wrong with it, especially when Greg is also in the kitchen making a vodka, coconut and rum drink topped off with a novelty umbrella. It doesn't matter how the dish turns out when you have a drink with an umbrella in it. Please.
Everyone cleaned their plates though, so either our lovely Australian friends and hosts are are very, very nice or the labna did, indeed, hit the spot.
PASTA DELLA BOSCA
This dish is affectionately named for John della Bosca, disgraced former health minister for New South Wales who was caught recently dallying with a blond 26-year-old comedy writer. Everywhere you turn in NSW this week, it's news of della Bosca (or news of the Victoria water minister who was rescued out of the bush after several days missing). Oh, you ministers...always getting into some kind of trouble.
3 slices of day-old bread, chopped into small pieces
4 T. olive oil, divided, plus more to garnish
3 T. fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped, divided
Freshly-cracked black pepper
3 medium zucchini, cut into a fat julienne
1 clove garlic, minced
2 t. fresh thyme, chopped, divided
400 g. penne rigate (a little less than a pound for those of you playing along in the U.S.)
Juice of half a lemon
120 g. (about 4 oz.) labna
Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino cheese, to garnish
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. In a medium bowl, combine the bread, 3 T. of the olive oil, 2 T. of the flat-leaf parsley, a pinch of kosher salt and a few grinds of black pepper. Toss to combine, then place in an even layer on a baking sheet. Bake until the bread crumbs are crisp, 8-10 minutes. Remove from the oven and set aside.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. While the water is heating, place 1 T. olive oil, the zucchini, garlic and thyme into a medium skillet. Season with a pinch of kosher salt and a little black pepper. Place over medium-high heat and cook until the zucchini begins to soften and take on a little brown color at the edges.
Cook the penne according to the package directions until it's al dente. Drain, reserving about 1/4 c. of the starchy pasta cooking liquid.
In a large bowl, combine the cooked pasta, zucchini mixture, bread crumbs and labna.
Add a little of the reserved pasta water and the lemon juice to the mixture. The labna will begin to melt and combine with the pasta water and lemon juice to make a creamy sauce. Toss in the reserved flat-leaf parsley and thyme.
Serve, garnished with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino cheese.
P.S. It is always best to follow a meal of pasta della Bosca as we did this week, with a Violet Crumble vs. Crunchie taste test, to determine which chocolate-covered honeycomb bar is your favourite.
For the record, I prefer the Crunchie chocolate but the Violet Crumble honeycomb. The best of both worlds.