Monday, 16 January 2012

Matar Paneer Tandoori

Please don't be taken in by my blog post and expect a tandoori twist to that old classic, matar paneer. It's a looong story which starts with the homemade paneer of my childhood. (For the uninitiated, paneer is a very popular Indian cheese, also known as cottage cheese).

I loved paneer as a child. Still do. Part of the reason for that, I think, is that my mother always made paneer at home, instead of opting for the easy way out and resorting to hard blocks of store bought paneer. Homemade paneer is an entirely different species from the store bought version. It is melt-in-the-mouth tender and far more porous than store bought paneer, which helps it absorb the flavours of the gravy that it is cooked in far more easily.

Texture is not just homemade paneer's biggest selling point, it may also be its biggest weakness. Unless you have the time and patience to leave a block of something really heavy on your paneer and let most of the moisture slink away bit by bit, it is likely that your paneer will end up a little crumbly and therefore, tougher to handle than the store bought version which you can neatly chop into any mathematically precise geometrical shape that catches your fancy. Rustic looking or not, my vote is  certainly for the homemade variety.

Here's an excellent video on how to make paneer. great link to step by step pictures on how to make paneer. This is exactly how we did at home. If you're facing a time crunch and don't mind your paneer being extra crumbly, once you have curdled the milk, you can simply pass the whole mixture, whey and all, though a fine sieve. Leave this undisturbed for around 30 minutes or so and you will be left paneer in the strainer, with all the whey having drained away. Make sure you use a fine sieve, otherwise the paneer bits will also pass through the sieve along with the whey!

Anyway, coming on now to the point of this post, since paneer is the Indian vegetarian's meat, there are few dinner parties that I have organised without a paneer dish on the menu. It was no different at my last dinner party, what with at least half the guests being vegetarian. Given the size of my guest list, my plan was to betray my idealistic principled stand on homemade paneer and go for the store bought version instead. And so it was, that on the day of my party, I was wandering in and out of supermarkets in my part of town trying to find an elusive block of Clawsons' paneer (that's the brand that seems to rule the roost here in London). I had no success. And so I was left with no option but to go for Plan B (which really should have been Plan A but for my laziness and the time crunch) - make paneer at home.

Armed with lemons and a gigantic can of milk, I set to work. I got the milk started in a large pan while I started on the rest of my cooking. I did keep an eye on the milk to make sure it doesn't boil and bubble over but there seemed to be no risk of that happening. It was all calm and placid. On the surface anyway. Around 30 minutes later when bubbles formed, I mixed the lemon juice in, curdled the milk successfully and got my sieve out to reap the paneer of my labour. As I titled the pan, I smelt a faintly smoky smell and saw that I had managed to get the milk stuck to the bottom of the pan. There goes my matar paneer, I thought.

I made a quick SOS call to my mother in Delhi. She seemed unperturbed by the whole thing. But worry I did. I fretted and fussed over the gravy. Added in a little extra garam masala, thinking that might mask the smoky flavour. Added in lots of freshly chopped coriander leaves. They have such a lovely aroma. Surely that would help. Added in a little more cream than I originally had in mind. Still no luck. I could still get that faint but sure smokiness through the gravy. I wrung my hands for a little longer and then gave up. Too late to try anything else.

At dinner, surprisingly, the matar paneer seemed to be getting attacked at an astonishing rate. I had had a few drinks by then. Maybe I was imagining it, I thought.

At the end of the meal, there was hardly any matar paneer left over. I just couldn't get it. As my guests were leaving, one of them came up to me asking me exactly how I managed to concoct the paneer dish with such a deep tandoori flavour. The rest chimed in, agreeing on how delicious the tandoori paneer was. I had a really strong urge to laugh, but I didn't want to burst anyone's bubble. So I nodded very humbly, smiled a small smile and said, oh it's really very easy.

PS: If you happen to read this M, sorry!! Just didn't have the heart to tell you the truth about the tandoori paneer.

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