I took an informal poll on Twitter and Facebook last week, asking which recipe you’d like to see me post about next. The winner was this one: Matar Paneer, or Indian Cheese and Peas. Or Peas and Cheese. Whatever.
During our courtship (Stop laughing! I know it was like all of 6 weeks. When you’re 30 going on 73, you can pack a lot into 6 weeks.), MJ and I wound up eating at several Indian restaurants pretty often. We fell in love with the food, and being what we are, decided that we MUST learn how to cook at least some of it, ourselves. I’ve lost exact count, but we now own close to 70 titles of Indian Cuisine cookbooks, alone.
But back then, we bought 2: Madhur Jaffrey’s A Taste of India and Smita Chandra’s From Bengal to Punjab: The Cuisines of India. We dove in, head-first. Is there any other way? We went to a nearby Indian grocery and stocked up on cumin seed and cardamom pods (both green and black, because we didn’t know which one we’d need). Asafoetida (which stinks to high heaven in the package, but does something magical to the food), turmeric, and mustard seeds, curry leaves – you name it, we got it.
One of the first recipes I made, and still make today, is an adaptation of Smita Chandra’s Kaju Matar Paneer, which is a variation that includes cashews and a creamy tomato sauce. Because, sometimes you feel like a nut. I’ve made a few small modifications of my own, over the years, incorporating some techniques that I’ve learned from subsequent books and the odd class here and there.
Ready for your paneer tutorial?
1/2 gallon (or 2 quarts, whichever sounds less intimidating to you) whole milk
1/2 cup natural plain yogurt (there should only be 1 ingredient on the package: Milk)
2 Tbs. lemon juice
Pour the milk into a large pot (at least 6 quart size), and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. It should look all creamy and foamy, like this:
Line a fine strainer/colander with 3 layers of cheesecloth and pour the contents of the pot into it. Don’t waste that whey! Put the largest mixing bowl you have under the strainer to catch the liquid. You can use that to cook the rice for this meal, soup, or when cooled, but still warm, use it as the liquid to bake bread.
Rinse the curds briefly with a little cold tap water. This will remove any lemony taste that might have been left behind. Gather up the edges of the cheesecloth so you’ve formed kind of a sack, and carefully, but firmly, twist it tightly to wring as much of the liquid as you can out of it. Be very, very careful – it’s still HOT. Some people tie the edges of the cheesecloth around their sink faucet or twist with the handle of a large wooden cooking spoon to assist with this. If you have them, use waterproof silicone oven mitts.
Press the parcel of soon-to-be cheese into a round, about 3/4″ – 1″ thick.
When you come back, the cheese parcel should be firm and dry. Unwrap it and put it on a plate. It should look like this:
Kaju Matar Paneer (Indian Cashew Peas & Cheese)
One recipe paneer (above)
4 Tbs. vegetable oil
1/2 – 3/4 cup cashew pieces (preferably raw, unsalted)
1″ piece fresh ginger, grated finely (or 2 tsp. ginger paste)
2 large cloves garlic, grated finely (or 2 tsp. garlic paste)
1/2 tsp. cumin seeds
1 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes in purée
Salt to taste
1/4 tsp. ground red pepper
1/4 tsp. ground turmeric
6-8 fresh curry leaves (optional)
1-1/2 cups peas (fresh or frozen)
1 tsp. garam masala
1/4 cup cream (your choice)
Fresh coriander leaves, for garnish (optional)
Dice the prepared cheese (paneer) into 1/2″ cubes. Heat the oil in a large pan over medium-high heat and fry the cubes of cheese until golden on all sides, stirring gently, occasionally. Remove from the pan with a slotted spoon onto a paper towel-lined plate and set aside.
Fry the cashew pieces in the same pan, until golden brown. This won’t take long, so don’t walk away! Remove the cashews from the pan and drain on paper towels. Set aside.
Reduce the heat under the pan to medium. Add the cumin seeds to the pan. When it darkens (just a few seconds), add the ginger and garlic. Stir, cook for about a minute, reduce the heat to low and add the crushed tomatoes, salt, ground red pepper, turmeric, fried cashew pieces, cheese cubes and peas. Cover and cook for 20 minutes.
Mix in the garam masala and the cream. Remove from the heat and serve over cooked basmati rice or with an Indian flatbread, such as naan or parathas. Garnish with fresh coriander leaves, if desired.