I have grown to love all types of Indian food. For better or worse, the creamy sauces, heavy-handed seasonings, and wealth of vegetarian options have made their mark on my taste buds! I will unabashedly admit to consuming some type of Indian dish three or four times a week. Really- this should be no big deal. I know plenty of people who live solely off of regionally-based diets. However, it matters because I have yet to actually learn how to cook any of it. This means that I eat out a whole lot and spend tons of money on delicious food, instead of taking my own culinary ventures in this direction.
To be fair, this entire world of spices and cooking techniques is 100% unfamiliar territory. I am very comfortable cooking cajun, Italian, French, and southern cuisines. My pantry is stocked and prepared for any of those dishes. When I look at a recipe for lasagna or collards, I am comfortable enough with those staples that I feel I can mess around with the ratios a bit and tailor it to my tastes. When it comes to Indian food, however, I sometimes can’t even pronounce all of the ingredients! Honestly, I have been quite afraid to branch out into Indian food for this very reason. To me, the upfront cost of attempting even a single recipe has always seemed quite high, and honestly- it is (but it’s so worth it)!
I decided to start of with one of my favorite vegetarian dishes, malai kofta. To make malai kofta, potato-paneer dumplings are simmered in a creamy tomato sauce. I will address the actual preparation of the kofta in a later post (boy was that an adventure!). For now, I’m just going to focus on the paneer part of this dish!
Homemade paneer is a really great place to start for anyone who is interested in Indian cuisine. It requires no special ingredients, and it is pretty simple. Also, even though it’s a staple in Indian cooking specifically, it can function much like tofu in any dish! On its own, paneer is not very flavorful (it’s an un-aged and unsalted cheese). Typically, it is served in some sort of sauce or curry, functioning as the main protein in a vegetarian dish. So, for a beginner, paneer can be a nice and slow start. You can simply make the cheese, and then use it in any of your favorite dishes to replace a protein. As an added bonus, the process of cooking paneer is so so cool! For anyone who loves the chemistry behind cooking, or just the feeling of being more connected to foods through their ingredients and the natural processes used in their creation- this is a fun thing to make!
(makes 3-4 cups)
1 gallon whole milk
2 yards cheese cloth
First- squeeze out all the juice of both lemons, strain it, and set it aside in a cup. You want roughly 1/2 cup of juice or more.
Pour the milk into a large, heavy saucepan over medium-high heat. Now, you’re going to have to stand here and continually scrape the bottom of the pan (with a rubber spatula or wooden spoon) until it boils. I know what y’all are thinking a watched pot never boils…and I promise you it will feel like this milk is never, ever going to boil. Just stick with it. Pretend you’re going to get a nice, foamy cappuccino out of it! You really need to keep scraping the bottom of the pot to ensure that none of the milk burns. This is super annoying, but- I promise- the fun part is coming up!
Wait until the milk gets very very foamy and does actually start to bubble a bit (milk will not boil as violently and obviously as water, so keep a good eye out for a rolling boil). Once this has happened, turn the heat down (to keep it from foaming over the lip of the pot), and set a timer for 5 minutes.
You might need to continue moving the foam around to prevent the milk from “boiling” over.
After the five minutes is up, it’s time for the fun part! Pour in your lemon juice and stir everything together. Watch the magnificent separation of the curds (the milk solids) from the whey (the liquids).
Now that you’re seeing this separation (and understanding the nursery rhyme Little Miss Muffett much better), it is time to begin the actual formation of your paneer!
Cut the cheese cloth in half and fold each sheet into a square. Place them inside of two colanders (if you have one, giant colander, you can just make one, giant slab of paneer). Drain out the whey from the curds, so that the curds remain resting on the cheese cloth inside each colander.
For each bundle, you’ll need enough excess cheese cloth to tie a knot and create a little curd satchel.
Gather up the excess cloth around the curds and bundle them together. Then, tie the satchels to the sink so that the whey can continue to drain.
You will need to let them hang there for about 20 minutes, as the curds drain and slowly solidify. Afterwards, place a cutting board in the sink and (keeping the curds inclosed in the cheese cloths) slowly press them into a disc. At this point, in your sink, you should have the cutting board and two discs of curds wrapped in cheese cloth. On top of each disc, you will need to place a pot filled with water (or any heavy weight). This needs to sit on the curds for at least two hours to ensure proper reduction and solidification. In the end, you’re still going to have a fairly soft cheese, but the longer you let the curds drain this way, the less crumbly the paneer will be.
After the cheese has drained with the weight on it, it is ready to be unwrapped and used in whatever way you like! Voilà!