labneh party spread

Labneh party spread

20 May 2015

Maybe it’s the Chinese in me, but family-style food is my jam. I’ll gladly eat artful, bite-sized hors d’oeuvres, or individually plated works of gastronomic fancy. But as a cook, I just want to set out giant bowls of food and let people gather round, curating their own meals as they please. It’s more sociable, less food goes to waste, and no one has to pretend to eat food they aren’t into, or wish they could have more of what they really liked.

My friend Cheryl laid out just such a spread recently at a party for the release of her dreamy new book, Yogurt Culture – savory grilled meats, berry sheet cake and cheesecake, giant bowls of homemade yogurt with all kinds of toppings and stir-ins, from granola to fruit compotes to deep coffee syrup.

But my very favorite was creamy, tangy labneh (Greek yogurt’s thicker cousin), topped with fresh basil pesto, chunky kalamata olive tapenade and soft, sweet roasted cherry tomatoes. On every table Cheryl had huge slabs of sangak, an oven-baked Persian flatbread, and I kept pulling off pieces to grab more of the cool spread with its intensely flavored toppings.

A big platter of this is going to be at the center of all my summer parties. It’s the best kind of warm-weather eats – less cooking, more assembly. You can easily buy the labneh, pesto and tapenade. Roasting tomatoes takes virtually no prep and only a hands-free half hour in the oven.

Then whenever you’re ready, spoon out the labneh, throw on some dollops of green, purple-black and red. Get some flatbread and go to town.

Gorgeous food, easy prep, live probiotics. Can’t lose.

labneh with tomatoes pesto tapenade

I’ve been off my yogurt-making routine recently, so I bought labneh from a local Middle Eastern market.

store bought labneh

But you could make your own labneh by straining plain yogurt in a colander. Regular yogurt will take 2-3 days to drain enough, but if you start with Greek yogurt, you only need a day or less.

straining yogurt

Cut side up, with a drizzle of olive oil and a good sprinkle of salt and pepper.

roasting tomatoes

No cheese in this pesto, just cut fragrant basil, a handful of nuts and garlic.

basil pinenuts garlic

Chop fine, then incorporate olive oil gradually.

chopping pesto

Every drop of pesto is intense goodness.

mini pesto

I scraped it out well but didn’t wash my mini processor before chopping my olives and capers into tapenade. We’re conserving water here in California, so it’s a win for both the environment and for this lazy cook-dishwasher.

olives capers tapenade

If you have all the ingredients, you can get the pesto and tapenade made before the tomatoes are even finished roasting. I always marvel at the deeply sweet, concentrated flavor of roasted tomatoes – a simple but complete transformation.

oven roasted tomatoes

I bought lavash at the Middle Eastern market, big sheets of thin, rectangular flatbread. You could also serve toasted pita wedges, as Cheryl does in her book, or even good flour tortillas.

labneh party spread

This is choose-your-own-adventure eating. Me? I want it all.

labneh party spread with lavash

(Next on my list from Cheryl’s book: mousse-like milk chocolate yogurt pots, recently featured by my friend Naz with chopped pistachios instead of salted peanuts. Between labneh spread and chocolate mousse, my formerly yogurt-shunning husband may become an official convert to Team Yogurt.)

yogurt culture

Party food ideas from the archive for Memorial Day:

Labneh Party Spread
I like my appetizers family style, both for ease of preparation and the social fun in sharing. This is my kind of party food: a big platter spread with creamy labneh (an ultrastrained version of Greek yogurt; like a tangy cream cheese with probiotic boost) and topped with fresh green basil pesto, dark kalamata olive tapenade and bright roasted cherry tomatoes. Surround it with any kind of flatbread – lavash, pita, sangak – and it will be the merry hotspot of any gathering. Adapted from Cheryl Sternman Rule‘s lovely book, Yogurt Culture.

Quick version: buy labneh, pesto and tapenade. Roasting tomatoes doesn’t take more than a drizzle of olive oil and a half hour of waiting, and you can make them a day or two ahead. But if you have the ingredients, the pesto and tapenade blend up quickly while the tomatoes are in the oven.

Roasted tomato ingredients

  • 2 cups cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

Pesto ingredients

  • 1 garlic clove, smashed
  • 1/4 cup unsalted nuts (pine nuts, pistachios, almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, cashews) or sunflower seeds
  • 1/2 cup (packed) fresh basil leaves, coarsely chopped
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt (use less or omit if using salted nuts)
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Tapenade ingredients

  • 1 cup pitted kalamata olives
  • 1 tablespoon drained capers
  • 1/4 teaspoon anchovy paste (optional)
  • Extra-virgin olive oil, for drizzling (optional)
  • Squeeze of fresh lemon juice

Ingredients for serving

  • 1 1/2 cups labneh (buy at a Middle Eastern grocery, or strain plain yogurt – see notes)
  • Flatbread, eg pita or lavash


  1. Roast tomatoes: Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Lay tomatoes cut side up on baking sheet (lined with parchment paper for easy cleanup) and drizzle with olive oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast until collapsed, 30 to 40 minutes. Makes 1 generous cup.
  2. Make pesto: In a mini food processor, pulse the garlic, nuts, basil and salt until finely chopped. Add the oil gradually, processing in bursts, until the oil is well incorporated. Makes 1/3 cup.
  3. Make tapenade: In a mini food processor, pulse the olives, capers and anchovy paste, if using, until well chopped and paste-like. Drizzle in a touch of oil, if desired, and season with lemon juice to taste. Makes 3/4 cup.
  4. Serve: Spread the labneh on a serving platter or shallow serving bowl, using the back of a spoon to make a wide indentation in the center. Dollop with distinct, heaping scoops of the roasted tomatoes, pesto and tapenade. Serve with plenty of warm flatbread.

Serves 10 to 12.


  • To make labneh from plain yogurt: Mix 1 quart (4 cups) plain yogurt (whole milk or low fat) with 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt. Set a colander in a bowl and line the colander with cheesecloth, a nut milk bag, or two large crisscrossed paper towels that overhang the sides of the colander. Scrape the yogurt into the lined colander and refrigerate for 48-72 hours. The longer it sits, the thicker it gets.
  • Compress your yogurt for faster draining: Gently cover the yogurt (with the overhang of the cheesecloth/paper towels, or pull closed the drawstring of the nut milk bag). Set a pot lid slightly smaller than the colander’s diameter on top of the cloth-covered yogurt. Set a weight (unopened canned products will do) over the pot lid. Refrigerate for 36 to 48 hours.
  • You can also make labneh from plain Greek yogurt – it will take less time (12-24 hours) since it starts out strained.
  • If your labneh is lumpy, whisk it (add a touch of cold water if needed) to smooth it out.
  • A batch of this can be eaten over several meals. All the components can be stored separately for several days and assembled as needed.

Here’s the link to a printable version.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Edie [eats] 21 May 2015 at 9:38 am

Then I must be partly Chinese as well. 😉
Love to make and eat family style dinners, in particular if that means I have to eat with my hands. And you’re so true, everyone can eat to their liking, so it’s great doing this at (informal) dinner parties. Although I also do this just for the two of us, finishing all kinds of left-overs in my fridge. Cooking a little, assembling some. Love it!


Alexa~FurnishMyWay 28 May 2015 at 8:32 am

Wow! Great post! I’m definitely inspired to try this recipe one day! I love Middle Eastern food a lot. This labneh party spread idea is simple, easy, and delicious. Can’t wait to try this one day!


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