Paneer Cheese in Fresh Tomato Sauce

I really enjoy the flavors of India.  I started cooking Indian food using Madhur Jaffrey’s An Invitation to Indian Cooking (published in 1973), a wonderful little book written in an engaging style.  I became a fan of Madhur Jaffrey and now own five other cookbooks that she has authored, my favorite being the simple Madhur Jaffrey’s Cookbook.  Another Indian cookbook that has always proved reliable for my forays into Indian cookery is Neelam Batra’s The Indian Vegetarian.  Written 20 years after Madhur Jaffrey’s first cookbook, it makes good use of the produce that is now available in most American markets, and focuses on healthy vegetarian family meals.  It is from this book that I prepared Paneer Cheese in Fresh Tomato Sauce this weekend.

Paneer Cheese is a great protein source for vegetarians.  I am not a vegetarian, but I do like vegetarian meals, and Amanda also prefers vegetarian meals to those with meat.  Paneer is made by curdling milk with a souring agent (I use yogurt) and then separating the curds from the whey.  By using low-fat milk to start the process, the resulting paneer is a low-fat, low-cholesterol, high-protein cheese. The fresh cheese is pressed and can then be cut into pieces and used in many other dishes. It looks a bit like tofu but is much firmer, and the taste is very mild so it will absorb the flavors of the sauce that you cook it with.  Flavored paneer cheeses can also be made by adding spices or herbs to the milk just before adding a souring agent, but for this recipe I made an unflavored paneer.

I follow Neelam Batra’s advice to rinse the pot with water before starting to make paneer.  The residual water left after the rinse seems to help keep the milk from sticking to the bottom of the pan.  Be sure to stir to prevent the milk from sticking as you heat it over high heat.  The yogurt should be pre-measured to be ready to add when the milk boils.

Basic Paneer Cheese (adapted from The Indian Vegetarian, by Neelam Batra)

3 quarts low-fat milk
3 cups nonfat plain yogurt, stirred until smooth
a large piece of double-thickness cheesecloth (about 2 feet square), rinsed

Rinse a large, heavy-bottomed pot, and pour the milk into it.  Heat over high heat, stirring, until it boils.  “Before the milk bubbles rise and spill over”, add the yogurt and keep stirring.  The milk will separate into flocculent curds and a greenish liquid whey.  Remove from the heat.

Drape the cheesecloth over a sieve or colander set over a large pan and pour the curds and whey through it.  The curds will stay in the cheesecloth and the whey will drain through.  (Keep 1/2 cup of whey to be used in the sauce).  Bring the corners of the cheesecloth together and lift it out of the sieve or colander to drain.  Tie it to the kitchen faucet to drain for about five minutes.  It will cool a bit and begin to hold together.  Remove the cheesecloth bag of curds from the faucet and gently twist the cheesecloth to extract as much whey as possible.  Then place the cheese between 2 flat surfaces ( I use 2 pyrex pie plates) with the twisted cheesecloth to the side.  Place a pan of water or a heavy can on the upper plate to compress the cheese.  Let the cheese continue to drain for about 15 minutes.  When it is cool, you can cut it into pieces to use in the dish you are preparing.

Paneer cheese can be prepared ahead of time and stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 5 days, or it can be frozen.  I usually make it the same day as the dish I am using it in, since I can be preparing a sauce while the Paneer cools.

Paneer Cheese in Fresh Tomato Sauce (Shahi Paneer, adapted from The Indian Vegetarian, by Neelam Batra)

4 large ripe tomatoes, cut into 8 wedges each
2 Tablespoons fresh cilantro
2 Tablespoons peanut oil
¼ cup shelled pistachios, not salted
¼ cup golden raisins
2 serrano peppers, skin punctured with a knife
1 ½ Tablespoons peeled and finely chopped fresh ginger
1 ½ Tablespoons ground coriander
1 ½ teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon paprika
½ teaspoon garam masala
½ teaspoon salt (plus more to taste)
¼ cup nonfat plain yogurt
½ cup whey reserved from paneer (or water)
½ cup cream or milk (I used cream)
1 recipe for Basic Paneer Cheese using  3 quarts milk (recipe above), cut into thick 1-inch pieces

Put the tomatoes and cilantro in a food processor, puree, and set aside.  Heat the oil in a very large nonstick skillet or saucepan over moderately high heat.  When hot, add the pistachios and raisins and fry until the raisins start to puff up, 1-2 minutes.  Remove to a plate lined with a paper towel; these tasty nuts and raisins will be used as a garnish at the end.

To the remaining oil in the pan, add the peppers and ginger and stir about one minute, until the ginger begins to turn color.  Add the pureed tomatoes and cook over high heat for about 3 minutes, then reduce the heat to medium and continue to cook for about a half hour, or until the liquid evaporates.
While the tomatoes are cooking, measure out all of the spices into a small bowl.  When the tomato liquid has cooked down, add the spices (including salt) and then add the yogurt, stirring constantly, to combine it with the tomatoes.

Increase the heat to high, add the paneer whey and bring to a boil.  Then add the cream and simmer over medium heat for 7-10 minutes to blend the flavors.  Add the paneer cheese cubes and simmer for 5-7 minutes.  Transfer to a serving dish and top with the reserved pistachios and raisins.  You may also garnish with chopped cilantro and a sprinkle of garam masala if you wish.  Serves 4.

I served this Paneer dish with a simple cardamom-scented basmati rice,  a red lentil dal, and broccoli cooked with mustard seeds.

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