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Basic Yogurt Sauce

One thing about cool dishes that can be a little problematic is creating rich flavors. When no heat is applied, onions are intense and domineering, tomatoes are acidic and watery, and peppers can be unappetizingly astringent. In the winter, when we pull out our soup pots, a little olive oil and some slow, steady heat turns vegetables into softies and sweethearts, giving their former rough characteristics a smoothness that makes for richly flavored dishes. In the summer, we have to get a little more creative.

The obvious place to start, for me at least, is with dairy products. Mellowing, refreshing, and rich all at once, milk and its multitudes of offspring can elevate even the humblest dish. Gazpacho is taken to new heights with a dollop of sour cream. A crisp salad can be transformed by a sprinkling of feta. See what I mean? And since cheesemakers do the hard work for us (thank you!), all we need to do is to be discerning customers and learn how to use dairy products in our cooking. As with most things, too much can be the death of a dish, too little can be disappointing, but the “Goldilocks” amount makes it just right.

Mostly, when we think about using dairy in foods, we think of cheeses: something gratable and meltable. But for dishes that you won’t be cooking, melting cheeses aren’t your best bet, because cheese needs heat to bring out its unctuous gooey qualities. For our purposes, I’d like to focus on yogurt. It’s not just for your morning granola anymore.

Yogurt has become my condiment of choice this summer. Tangier (and less greasy) than mayonnaise and lighter than sour cream, yogurt adds the necessary oomph to the fresh and delightfully unrefined dishes of high summer. I like to use it instead of mayonnaise in a potato salad, in cold soups, and as a sauce for meats and some salads. It seems to go with just about anything, providing a smooth and bright contrast to charcoal-scented grilled meats and giving soups a wonderful and beguiling richness. And as a dip for crudités, there’s none better.

However, I don’t often use yogurt plain. Most often, I mix in fresh herbs, spices, and sometimes a cucumber or jalapeno. In India, yogurt sauce with herbs and cucumber (and often chili powder or a fresh diced chile) is called raita. In Greece, the yogurt sauce that is usually associated with gyros is called tzatziki. In the Middle East, you can find yogurt sauces spiked with cilantro. Yogurt sauce is highly versatile, and you can make it exactly to your tastes—spicy or herby, sweet or sour, chunky or smooth.

The yogurt: use Greek-style. Plain yogurt is what you want, but the texture and tang of Greek-style in particular is ideal. The herbs: fresh please. Dried herbs are fine, but for such a fresh sauce you want fresh herbs. Pick up herbs at your local farmers’ market or at the supermarket, or even better: start an herb garden. It’s a great way to introduce yourself to gardening. Herbs are low-maintenance, high-yield, and many of them can over-winter.

I’m going to give you a basic recipe for yogurt sauce, but the options are infinite. Add mint, cilantro, dill, basil, cucumber, tomato, fresh chile peppers, fennel, coriander, cumin, lemon juice, garlic, salt, chili powder or anything else you happen to have around. I can imagine that canned chipotles in adobo sauce would be just fine, or add relish for a sauce to put on hamburgers and hot dogs. And did I mention that this sauce can accompany almost anything from roast vegetables to leg of lamb?

Basic Yogurt Sauce
Makes about 2 cups

In a medium bowl combine:
            1 cup plain Greek-style yogurt
            1/2 an English hothouse cucumber, roughly chopped
            Juice of 1/2 lemon
            2 tablespoons fresh herbs (any combination of dill, mint, cilantro, and basil)
            1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
            1 clove garlic, minced
            1 teaspoon freshly ground cumin
            1/2 teaspoon freshly ground coriander
            ¼ teaspoon salt
Let sit for at least 30 minutes for the flavors to meld.

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Simmer gently over medium heat until tender, about 15 to 20 minutes:
     1/2 cup French, brown, or green lentils
     1 cup water

Combine the lentils in a large...