Last week I made paneer, the mild Indian cheese that hides underneath spinach in saag paneer. To those of you who recall that I recently made my own butter, let me explain: I'm not a crazed dairy maid wannabe. I promise. I'm just obsessed with Indian food. I eat it till I'm sick.
After a recent dinner with E. and G. over daal, shrimp vindaloo, chicken tikka masala, naan and an excellent saag paneer, I decided to go Indian in my very own kitchen. I was feeling adventurous, and the idea of making my very own fresh chunks of mild, creamy cheese held great appeal. Not only would it mean fresh cheese at my fingertips, but if I could do that, what couldn't I do? She who can turn milk into cheese is something akin to a goddess, and I've always looked good in white flowing gowns. With flowers in my hair. Ooh, and servants fanning me with palms and annointing my feet with precious oils and playing the harp in the corner of my living room.
Let's see. Where was I...?
Right. Saag paneer. And so, I planned the menu: the star of the show would be served with baked basmati rice using a recipe by the famous Madhur Jaffrey and chicken tandoori marinated overnight in a soup of yogurt, curry, cinnamon, cayenne pepper and garlic. (No, I do not have a fire-burning tandoori oven. Whatever. I broiled it. It was good.) Can't forget my favorite condiment, mango chutney. I figured I wouldn't tackle making naan from scratch but I needed a vehicle for my chutney-love, so I decided to pick some up from the Indian joint down the street.
The evening didn't quite come together as I'd planned. I didn't feel like going out to pick up the naan and the saag paneer was a lot of effort for a dish that wasn't as good as the stuff I've had out. (Not to mention that the cherubs I ordered never showed and Mr. FM refused to wear his toga. Harumph.) The dish wimped out a bit on flavor and the consistency wasn't creamy enough, leading me to believe that my version had less fat in it (perhaps due to my substitution of oil for ghee?). Mr. Food Musings, however, actually preferred the fresher, lighter taste of the homemade saag paneer.
Both of us, however, liked the fresh cheese. It turned out well and was fun to make, so I figured I'd share the method with you. You can use it in a number of dishes, from stir fries to omelets to curries to finger food.
It's fairly simple to make: boil some whole milk, throw in something acidic to curdle it (white vinegar or lemon juice), strain it through cheesecloth, then weight it down to remove any remaining liquid. Once that's done you can refrigerate it till you're ready to eat it, or cut it into chunks right away and fry them gently in hot oil, making sure to brown all sides.
I made paneer twice (the first batch didn't yield much). Had I not let the milk boil over, I would have ended the first paneer making session with a lovely, though small, block of fresh paneer and no messy cleanup. As it happened, I spent 30 minutes taking apart my stove to clean the burner, the metal cup that lies under it, and the inside of my stove. I managed to get it all cleaned up, except the poor pot which had to soak overnight (sigh...I knew I should have stayed in the kitchen and watched the milk. But Oprah was on.). The second batch produced much more cheese, and I've modified the instructions so you will get as much as I did the second go-round.
To be honest, I bet the cheese would be lovely warmed again and drizzled with some fresh honey. Doesn't that sound like just the thing to be fed while reclining on the chaise lounge after dinner? Hmmm, I wonder if Mr. Food Musings can make any of his seven guitars* sound like a harp...?
Yield: 1 1/2 cups
1/2 gallon whole milk
2 TBSP lemon juice
1. In a heavy saucepan, bring milk to a boil. (When it has reached full boil, it will look very foamy and quickly - QUICKLY, I say - rise in the pot. To avoid the ensuing mess, remove it from the heat right away.) Add lemon juice and stir until small curds separate from the whey, about 2-3 minutes.
2. Let sit 10 minutes so curds can develop, then drain into a collander lined with 2 layers of cheesecloth. When cool enough to handle, tie up opposite ends of the cheese cloth and squeeze out remaining liquid.
3. Place paneer, still in cheese cloth, on a plate. Flatten to 1/2" thick and top with another plate. Rest something heavy on top (such as several cans or the Joy of Cooking) and let sit 20 minutes.
4. Pour off any liquid that remains and refrigerate overnight, or use immediately by cutting paneer into 1/2" cubes and frying gently in oil, turning to brown each side.
*They're all completely different. Really.