Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Paneer and shahjeera - a royal match

Paneer is Indian cottage cheese and shahjeera is a spice which in India is known as Royal Cumin due to its strong cumin flavor. Other parts of the world know it as caraway seeds. In India, shahjeera is used mostly in rice dishes such as Biryani for its strong aroma. The combination of paneer and shahjeera is great because shahjeera adds a special flavor to the usual paneer and peas curry.

Paneer is best made at home, where you can control the fat content of the cheese. The ones available in the Indian grocery stores in America are mostly made with powdered milk and have a very rubbery consistency. I make mine with 2% milk.

Making paneer at home is a very simple process. The milk is brought to a boil and then the heat is turned off. The boiled milk is curdled with yogurt and the curds are drained through a cheesecloth and hung till it reaches a nice soft consistency and the whey is no longer dripping. Place the cheesecloth ball on a plate and press with something heavy till it reaches the shape of a disk as in the first picture below.
Paneer with shahjeera

1 quart 2% milk (makes about 6 oz of paneer)
1/3 cup plain yogurt
1/2 teaspoon shahjeera (black cumin) seeds
1/2 cup chopped red onion
1 medium tomato chopped
3/4 teaspoon cayenne powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt or to taste
1/2 cup organic frozen peas
1 tablespoon canola oil
1/2 teaspoon garam masala (optional)
1/4 cup fresh cilantro leaves, chopped

1. Bring the milk to a boil in  heavy saucepan. As soon as the milk comes to a boil, turn off the heat. Whisk the yogurt in a small bowl and add the whisked yogurt to the boiled milk. Stir the milk slowly to incorporate the yogurt. After a few seconds the milk will begin to curdle. They whey will separate from the curds. If this does not happen, add a couple of tablespoons more of yogurt.

2. Drain the curdled milk though a cheesecloth and hang for 10 minutes for all the whey to drain out. Now pat the curds into a disk and place on a plate or board. Then place another plate on top with a heavy weight on it like a can of beans. Let it sit for 10 minutes till the disk is uniform and it still moist but not dripping. Cut the paneer into diamond shapes or 1/2 inch squares like in picture 2.

3. Heat a heavy bottomed skillet over medium high heat. Add the shah jeera and let it cook for 30 seconds. Then add the chopped onion and saute for 2 minutes till it is soft. Add the paneer and continue to saute till the paneer has acquired a light golden color like in picture 3.

4. Add the chopped tomato, peas, cayenne powder, and salt and toss well. Cook covered till the tomato has broken down and form a thick sauce. Sprinkle garam masala if using. Garnish with chopped cilantro and serve with chapati or pita.

Serves 3

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