Over Thanksgiving weekend, we went to an all-you-can-eat Indian restaurant, one of those fancy kinds with cloth napkins and unlimited mimosas. I was surprised actually; it was a kind wholly new to me. I’m so used to grungy hole-in-the-walls, where you grab a stack of napkins and silverware from a nearby dolly and a carafe of water from the fridge, and juggle everything back to your seat.
The last time I ate Indian food was more than a year ago in Cusco, Peru. Random? It certainly had been to me. The restaurant had been largely empty, although a steady stream of South Asian-looking patrons suggested that it was one of the better spots in town to procure Indian food maybe? I don’t know. It hadn’t been very good. And they hadn’t served naan, which is a dealbreaker.
So subpar experiences aside, I hadn’t eaten Indian food since I moved out of San Francisco. Which is a pity really. I’d forgotten how much I love the cuisine.
This buffet had all the goodies—namely chicken tikka masala (who doesn’t want to lick their plate after eating it?) as well as my other favorite, chana aloo, chickpea and potato curry. And there was naan! Lovely pieces of naan. And mango lassi. And chai. Check, check, check, all my favorite things were represented. What really stood out to me, however, was the palak paneer, spinach curry with cheese. The rediscovery of this humble little dish has stuck with me, demanding to be made.
So I thought I’d begin my forays into Indian cooking on this blog with paneer, Indian cheese. I guess paneer is essentially compacted cottage cheese, similar to queso fresco, but it’s so distinctly Indian to me. It’s great as a vegetarian base for lots of curry dishes, like palak paneer, but I’ve seen it in salads, in soups. It would taste great grilled, or in a wrap.
It’s also incredibly easy to make, requiring nothing more than whole milk and some kind of acid—in my case, lemon juice—to separate the curds from the whey. And that’s it! I love how you can get such great results from making it at home. It definitely convinces me to make it once a week just so I can have it on hand.
HOW TO MAKE PANEER
From Aarti Sequeira for the Food Network
Makes about 12 oz.
8 cups whole milk (a half gallon)
about 1/4 cup lemon juice
Line a large colander with a large double layer of cheesecloth, and set it in your sink.
In a large wide pot, bring the milk to a gentle boil over medium heat, stirring frequently so the bottom doesn’t burn, about 10 minutes. Add the lemon juice and turn the heat to low. Stir gently for about 30 seconds. The curds (white milk solids) and whey (greenish liquid) should start to separate immediately. If not, add a little more lemon juice
Remove the pot from the heat and carefully pour the contents into the cheesecloth-lined colander. Gently rinse with cool water to get rid of the lemon flavor. Grab the ends of the cheesecloth and twist the ball of cheese to squeeze out the excess whey. Tie the cheesecloth to your kitchen faucet and allow the cheese to drain for about 5 minutes.
Twisting the ball to compact the cheese into a roundish block, place it on a plate with the twisted part of the cheesecloth on the side. Set another plate on top. Weigh the second plate down with something heavy, like a can of beans. Move to the refrigerator and let sit for about 30 minutes to 1 hour.