Today’s dish is extra special because I put in some extra effort to make the main ingredient: paneer.
Paneer is basically a homemade cheese prepared by curdling milk with acid. It is mostly used in vegetarian cooking as a substitute for meat and other proteins, and its usual permutation is cut into cubes or chunks and tossed into a bubbly and fresh pot of saag (mustard greens) or palak (spinach), greens that are mashed into a thick and hearty gravy and seasoned with spices and chili.
I love paneer because of its creamy and chewy texture. What’s not to love about fresh milk curds that are pressed into firm blocks and cooked within the day that they were made? I cut them up here into little diamonds and gave them a coat of a tomato and cream-based gravy thickened with butter and ground cashew nuts. This recipe is called a matter paneer, a fairly typical every-day dish in North India.
I started earlier today with a litre of milk. I had no previous experience making paneer or any sort of cheese, so this was a big gamble for me. The instructions from the recipe that I read presented various curdling media to coagulate the boiled milk: vinegar, lemon juice, and dahi or fermented milk curds, a product similar to sour Greek yoghurt. I’ve read that using curd results to a creamier paneer without the tinny, metallic taste from strong acids like lemon juice.
Previously, I made my own dahi at home and remarked how incredibly foolproof and easy the process is. The procedure is pretty simple: you just need to stir in a teaspoon of store-bought dahi into a pot of boiled milk that has been brought down to a warm temperature. 8 hours later, the curds will form due to fermentation and when the curds have set, you could start chilling them in the fridge and use it as a substitute for commercial yoghurt.
Making paneer today was a bit more complicated. After bringing milk to a rolling boil, I spooned half a cup of dahi into the pot and almost immediately, the curds started to form. The greenish liquid that forms is actually what you call whey. So curds and whey are two parts of the milk, wherein the curds are the milk solids and of course, the whey is liquid. Many blogs and websites say I should save the whey and drink it after it has chilled in the fridge, but as I was pressing the drained curds into a disc, my cat was dipping its paws into the bowl of warm liquid. Naughty boy.
I strained the curds into a fine cheesecloth and started pressing. You could actually put a plate over it and put something quite heavy on top so that the excess whey and water will be pressed out of the cheesecloth, resulting to a firmer and more intact paneer, instead of a crumbly cheese that falls apart.
I was a bit disappointed with how little the yield was, considering that it seems to be an awful lot of work just for a few pieces of paneer. I noted that this is probably something I’d rather not be troubled to make myself under normal circumstances, but since I am under social distancing orders, homemade is the way to go.
The gravy that I made is pretty similar to the butter chicken gravy that I had previously made. However, this time, I did not bother making the gravy silky and velvety by passing it through a sieve. Ain’t nobody got time for that.
I started by sauteing finely chopped shallots in a hot pan of ghee. I then added tomato paste and chunky tomato puree. Next, I mixed in garlic and ginger paste, garam masala, Kashmiri red chilli powder, and salt. I added a bit of water to reduce the body of the tomato paste, and then added in about a handful of ground cashews. When the sauce has simmered, I generously added cream and let it simmer until it was ready.
I served the paneer with a generous sprinkle of kasuri methi (crushed fenugreek leaves) and a dash of cream, to give it an extra layer of richness.
Have you made your own paneer at home? Any recipe ideas on what to do with paneer?