Friday, September 7, 2007

how to: paneer

Most Americans have tasted this Indian staple cheese due to its prevalence now in Indian restaurants, commonly appearing in familiar dishes like palak paneer (spinach with paneer) and matar paneer (peas with cheese). Chewy and incredibly mild, it easily takes on the flavors of the surrounding spices in which it stews. Since much of the population of India are vegetarian, paneer has become a great source of protein because it's not made using rennet, an animal enzyme used to make most cheeses of the world. Paneer, instead, is acid-coagulated using lemon or lime juice, or vinegar. The curds are pressed to release any moisture and cut for immediate use in cooking.

It's believed that paneer was originally introduced to India by invaders from the west, Persia and Afghanistan. Paneer means cheese in Persian. To this day, paneer production is most common in the northwest outlying regions of India. It wasn't until about 40 years ago that paneer started to spread and gain popularity throughout the rest of the country.

You can find paneer sold in blocks at Indian and international markets. I've also seen it at Whole Foods ($6-$7). In Baltimore specifically, it's available at several Halal markets in the city and in Catonsville. But then again, you can simply make your own at home...

yields 10-12 ounces

1 quart whole milk
juice of 2 lemons or limes

1. In a large stockpot, heat the milk to a boil, reduce heat to medium low, and simmer for 10 minutes, constantly stirring.

2. With heat on low, stir in the lemon juice. Keep stirring for 30 seconds. The curds will seperate from the whey.

3. Line a colander with 2 layers of cheesecloth. Pour the curds and whey into the colander. Rinse the curds with cold water to wash off excess lemon juice and foam.

4. Gather the edges of cloth and wring out any liquid from the cheese. Tie a knot to secure the cheese in a tight ball. Slip a chopstick through the knot and balance in a deep bowl to facilitate draining. Let hang for 1 1/2 hours.

5. Untie knot and squeeze out any more liquid. Twist the cloth again to reform a tight ball. Set on a plate and weigh down the cheese with anything heavy (casserole dish, bricks, etc) for 2 hours.

6. Remove weights and place pressed cheese in refrigerator for about 1/2 hour to firm up. Cut the cheese into strips, then cubes.

7. Fry on all sides in a pan with butter, ghee (clarified butter), or vegetable oil.