Have Some Paneer, My Dear


As a kid, my momma used to drag me into the local health-food store about once a week. The pungent aroma their contents exuded fascinated me. I wanted to know what each spice was used for and how each tasted. Sometimes, momma appeased my curiosity and bought one of the then-exotic spices such as curry powder or coriander.

paneer (n): A common and indigenous Indian cheese that is unaged, acid-set and a non-melting farmer cheese. Similar to acidset fresh mozzarella and queso blanco.

I get the same curious feelings today when I go into Patel's Groceries to shop. When you open the door, you are met with the enticing fragrance combination of cumin, garam masala, and a multitude of other bagged and bottled spices. I usually wander around for a few minutes before buying my staples, paneer and garlic naan. Typically a few other interesting items will also go into the basket, which is why I am still using up a rather large bag of coconut powder. I still haven't opened up the asafetida I got on my last trip.

I have always enjoyed Indian food. When I got my first apartment, my mother provided me a copy of Madhur Jaffrey's "Indian Cooking" and a bag of needed spices. This cookbook contains an awesome warm carrot salad recipe that I still frequently make. The meal of choice lately, however, is paneer korma.

Paneer is a creamy, yet firm, Indian cheese that doesn't melt. A family friend convinced my husband and me that making your own paneer is a simple process, and it is. You basically add an acid such as lemon juice or vinegar to hot milk and wait for it to curdle. Strain it through cheesecloth, put the cloth-wrapped curds into a container and apply weight to press out the water. After doing this once or twice, I came to the conclusion that, being the slacker that I am, I am just as happy with the frozen paneer you can get at the Indian grocery store. There's more of it, my kitchen stays cleaner, and driving to the store and back definitely takes less time.

The following is my simplified version of paneer korma. While probably not exactly authentic, it works for me. You can buy all of the needed ingredients at Patel Groceries just off Old Canton Road in Ridgeland or at Patel Brothers on Highway 80 in Jackson. The employees at both stores are always helpful, and they've yet to laugh at any of the probably inane questions I tend to ask them.

Paneer Korma
1 to 2 cups cubed paneer (or one package)
1 yellow onion, chopped
1-2 tomatoes, diced (or one 14 oz. can diced tomatoes – I use whichever I have on hand)
1 tsp ginger paste
1 tsp garlic paste
1 tbsp coconut powder
1 tsp red chili powder
A few whole cloves
2 tsp garam masala
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp ground coriander
4-5 tbsp cream
Salt to taste
Black pepper
Vegetable oil (a couple of turns around the pan)

In a large pan, heat the oil. If you are using fresh paneer, cube the cheese and sauté until lightly brown and crispy. Remove from the oil and set aside. If you are using pre-fried paneer, go to step 2. (While I think that the fresh paneer tastes better, I have discovered that if I use it, very little of it actually makes it back into the completed dish, as both my husband and I tend to snack on it as I'm cooking. Also, there's that previously mentioned laziness. Therefore, I typically use the already cubed and fried stuff, which works fine.)

Add cloves and black pepper to oil and sauté for a minute or two.

Add onions and coconut powder. Cook for a few minutes, until the onions are
becoming translucent.

Add ginger and garlic pastes and cook for a few more minutes.

Add remaining spices and the tomatoes. Cook for 3-4 minutes. Then add a
little more water than what you need to make a sauce. Bring it to a boil until it becomes
a relatively thick sauce. (I usually cook it until the tomatoes break down.)

Add paneer and cook until it is heated through.

Stir in cream. (For some reason I frequently forget this step, and it is just as
good.) Serve with rice.


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