Anyone who’s eaten at an Indian restaurant will recognize palak paneer (spinach with cubed cheese) or mutter paneer (peas and tomatoes with cubed cheese). The basic element - the paneer itself - is simple to make at home.
Paneer, the cheese of Northern India (it also appears in Nepal, Bangladesh, and Pakistan), is a main source of protein. “When I was a kid, having meat was for festivals or at home once in a month,’’ explains Rajneesh Gandhi, a chef/consultant in Bangalore, India. “Only recently have Indians gotten into eating a lot of meat.’’
Made from pressed milk curds, the mild cheese takes about two hours, made by curdling milk with an acid, generally lemon juice or diluted vinegar, instead of rennet. The acid helps the paneer hold its shape, so it doesn’t melt, making it good for grilling and frying.
To make it, you boil milk, let it curdle, then drain the curds. If you knead them at this point, they become a soft textured cheese called chenna, used in desserts. For paneer, bundle the curds in cheesecloth and hang from a kitchen faucet or press with a weight. The result is similar in appearance and texture to firm tofu. Handle paneer gently so it doesn’t fall apart.
Gandhi grew up in Nagpur and Delhi, where paneer is a staple of the diet, and he has featured it prominently at the Leela Palace Bangalore and the Ritz-Carlton, Bahrain, where he worked.
He recommends using whole milk and a little cream, to mimic the texture of paneer made from water buffalo milk, which is fattier than cow’s milk and common in India. Save leftover whey to use in place of lemon juice or vinegar in another batch.
As easy as it is to make paneer, many Indians don’t bother. Nitika Aurora, a Bombay native, now lives with her husband and their young child in Ashland. “All my family members back home make it,’’ she says, “but half my friends here just buy it. It’s cheaper, though, if you make it at home.’’
A $4 gallon of milk produces well over a pound of paneer. Aurora makes it once or twice a month, usually for shahi paneer (in a tomato-based cream sauce) or palak paneer (with pureed spinach in a mild curry sauce). Although Aurora is not a vegetarian, she enjoys paneer-based dishes. “Paneer is like chicken for vegetarian people in India.’’
Gandhi, who is currently working on a restaurant project in Chicago, has particularly warm family associations with paneer. “My dad used to be a contractor and built these cement water tanks,’’ he says. Construction was in villages far from home, and his father would be gone for long periods of time. “Whenever he would visit, it would be a family feast. My mom would make sure that she’d make paneer for him. So I looked forward to seeing my dad and having paneer as well.
“I’d eat palak paneer over anything else.’’Matt Barber can be reached at email@example.com.