Wednesday, 6 April 2016

on white + a recipe for pasta with labne, spinach and almonds

conchiglie with labne, spinach and almonds 
white is known for the absence of hues that are visible to the naked eye. this explains why some argue that it is not a colour at all. a (my sister-in-law) disagrees. she is an artist. she says that white is like light. it contains the full spectrum of colours that are sometimes visible, like when a rainbow appears in the sky.

as an artist, white is elemental. it is the colour of most surfaces that artists paint or drawn on. surfaces that are not white to start with are usually primed with white. this is because a white background gives depth and dimension to the colours applied to it. white is also used to create shades, either as a lightener or when used to highlight darker tones. auntie s made a portrait of mama in pastel when i was in my early teens. i was fascinated by how she built colour, using white to lighten, brighten and blend. 

for me, white exists on a spectrum. i prefer warm whites, ones that have a creamy undertone. a cold tone of white reminds me of the bluish glow of tube lights. tube lights were very popular in pakistan through the nineties. tube lighting has the unfortunate effect of casting unsightly shadows. i grew up in rented houses and one of the first tasks that we undertook as a family was to fix the lighting. mama and baba taught me how to use lamps and warm bulbs and muted fabrics to create warm light. 

when i started cooking, i noticed the similarities in the workings of white in the kitchen. white has multiple attributes. it conjures the flavours of richness (cream and butter), tartness (yoghurt) or nuttiness (some cheeses). it has the effect of emphasizing contrasts. take for instance the startling effect of a squiggle of cream in a bowl of barszcz or sliced mango. in both cases the cream highlights the earthy pink-red of the beets or saffron yellow flesh of mango. cream can also dilute and mute colour like those of soups or stews enriched with it.

like a, i see certain white ingredients as beginnings. milk and basmati come together with low and slow cooking to become kheer. often, pale slivered almonds are rifled through the milky pudding. the fragrance of steamed basmati is synonymous with pure white and the beginnings of elaborate dishes such as pulao and biryani.

many of my favourite foods lie on a spectrum of white. mama used to make dinner rolls shaped like a knot. their surfaces were pale biscuit and the insides pure white. one cannot go wrong with béchamel. as children, it was the perfect tv dinner. mama would make it in a two-handled saucepan. we would watch top of the pops on weeknights while dipping toast fingers into the pan of béchamel. baba introduced me to hico’s vanilla ice cream.  it was pale white and very different from the processed bright yellow one that i was used to.

and how can i forget yoghurt. yoghurt is an enduring love. it is a staple ingredient in my kitchen. i love its different forms. live yoghurt has a watery consistency. its sharpness is particularly suited to raita or as an accompaniment to pakistani food. richer and denser kinds like natural, greek and skyr work well as a condiment. i often mix them with harissa or tahini to dollop over a bowl of grains and lentils. they come together with roasted vegetables to make dips like borani, tzatziki or baba ghanouj. serve these with a fresh salad and some toasted pita for a light supper. labne (often described as yoghurt cheese or hung yoghurt) is very versatile. i slather it on toast with honey or smear it on a plate as a base for poached or roasted fruit for dessert (like my roasted peaches with brown sugar labne).but most often, i use it to make a pasta sauce that has all the comfort of a creamy base but with an assertive personality. it is tart and deeply savoury.

this recipe is for a. it is an accidental recipe. i had intended to make o’s favourite spinach and ricotta pasta only to find that there was no ricotta. labne was the substitute. it worked so well that o asks for it often. the pairing of yoghurt with pasta is not unusual. the turks make tiny dumplings called manti cloaked in a yoghurt sauce. the afghan’s use kashk (sour yoghurt) to garnish mantu. the wrapper for mantu is much like pasta. i liken them to ravioli. iranians drizzle kashk into bowls of hearty ‘aash’. the soup is thick and fortified with greens, beans and stubby sticks of noodles like spaghetti.

{conchiglie with labne, spinach and almonds}

250 grams blanched spinach
450 grams labneh* or hung yoghurt
250 grams conchiglie* (or any shell shaped pasta)
zest of a lemon
3 cloves garlic
2 tsps salt + more for the pasta water
olive oil
pul biber or dhara mirch (if in pakistan)
toasted flaked almonds

some notes on the recipe: i like to use conchiglie; a large shell shaped pasta. i like the shape but more importantly the crevices in the pasta mean that the sauce settles into the hollow. if you cannot find conchiglie use a pasta shape that would allow the sauce a space to settle.

labne is easy to make. it is essentially hung yoghurt. i like to use greek or full fat yoghurt. a kilogram of yoghurt yields roughly the amount you need for this recipe. follow my instructions here to make labne.

make a rough paste from the garlic and salt using a pestle and mortar. chop the blanched spinach. zest the lemon.

heat three tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat in a wok or saucepan that is large enough to accommodate the pasta. add the garlic paste and lemon zest. fry them gently until the garlic looses its raw edge and browns lightly. turn the heat up and add the spinach. sauté briefly. the spinach should remain bright. remove from the heat and allow the pan to cool slightly before stirring in the labne.

cook the pasta until al dente. make sure that you salt the pasta water generously. i like to follow bee wilson’s rule that states that the water should be as salty as the sea. drain the pasta reserving a few tablespoons of the pasta liquor.

add the pasta to the yoghurt sauce and stir gently until the pasta is coated with the sauce. add a little of the reserved pasta liquor if the sauce is too thick. you want a creamy texture.

drizzle with extra olive oil. sprinkle with pul biber and some toasted almonds. eat.



  1. Wonderful writing, beautiful sounding pasta!

    1. thank you! i love the tanginess of the yoghurt. i am not a big fan of creamy pasta. x

  2. Anonymous6.4.16

    Reading this I remembered the Dutch 'hangop', which is yoghurt or buttermilk strained through a damp teatowel

    1. i had no idea that the dutch also like yoghurt. i would love to know more. x

    2. Anonymous18.4.16

      It's a farmhouse staple and therefore rarely seen in recipes. I think it's traditionally made with buttermilk, which makes sense, or soured milk cultures. When people make it at home nowadays they will use yoghurt which is more available. There's also a big tradition of making homemade yoghurt in France, using a yoghurt making machine!