The ease of this delicious traditional Indian dish is almost shocking. While this version is close to authentic, authenticity is not its goal. I reduced the fat, made some substitutions and added an actual animal protein to satisfy my husband’s idea that if it doesn’t have meat in it, it’s a side dish.
Paneer cheese is a favorite of my good friend David over at New York Food Journal and when I emailed him in the afternoon asking where he gets his paneer for his Indian dishes, he told me he makes it! And that it’s better than any cheese I could buy. On top of that, it could be prepared in as little as twenty minutes and ready in under an hour. He sent me his recipe for Paneer Makhani and that sealed it for me. I was going to make cheese and add it to a classic spinach dish, saag paneer.
For the best results, I cooked the paneer cubes (delicately because I didn’t have time for it to harden to extra firm) until they were very brown. As they cooked I chopped up the fresh baby spinach, measured out the spices, taking a moment to appreciate the whimsical symmetry of the ginger root before I grated it to oblivion. On the side I cooked up some turkey sausages to add to one of the bowls and all together, this saag paneer was out of this world, something I will revisit when I’m pinched for time and want a wonderfully satisfying meal.
For the Paneer
- 5 cups whole or 2% milk (I used 2%)
- 1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice or white vinegar plus more as needed
Line a large colander with a large double layer of cheesecloth, and set it in your sink.
In a large pot, bring the milk to a gentle boil over medium heat, stirring frequently to avoid burning the bottom. This could take a quite a few minutes. Add the lemon juice or vinegar and turn the heat down to low. Stirring gently, you should almost immediately see the curds (white milk solids). If the milk doesn’t separate add another tablespoon or two of lemon juice or vinegar and boost the heat again. The milk should separate. Stir in a motion that gathers the curds together rather than breaks them up.
Turn off heat, remove the pot from the stove and carefully pour the contents into the cheesecloth-lined colander. Gently rinse with cool water to get rid of the lemon/vinegar flavor.
Grab the ends of the cheesecloth and twist the ball of cheese to squeeze out the excess whey. Tie the cheesecloth to your kitchen faucet and allow the cheese to drain for about 5 minutes.
Twisting the ball to compact the cheese into a block, place it on a plate with a high lip to catch extra liquid. The twisted part of the cheesecloth should be on the side (this will ensure your block of cheese is nice and smooth!) and set another plate on top. Weigh the second plate down with cans of beans or a heavy pot. Move to the refrigerator and let it sit about 20 minutes. The longer you leave it, the firmer it will be (24 hours is probably ideal), but after 20 minutes it is usable.
For the Saag Paneer
- 1 pound fresh baby spinach, well washed and chopped
- 8 – 12 oz paneer cheese, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
- 2 medium onions, finely chopped
- scant 1/2 teaspoon fine grain sea salt
- 6 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 turkey sausage links (optional-Note, if you use these, you may want to skip the salt)
- 3 medium garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger, grated
- 2 tablespoons garam masala (see below for recipe)
- 1/4 teaspoon turmeric
- 1 cup non-fat Greek yogurt
- fresh lemon to finish
Cook the paneer in two tablespoons of the olive oil in a large skillet. Make sure the paneer is in a single layer and use a spatula to flip it regularly so all sides get deeply brown. This typically takes 7 minutes or so. Remove from the pan and set aside.
If you’re adding an animal protein (which is completely untraditional) heat the other two tablespoon of oil in a skillet and cook the turkey sausages until finished, making sure to pierce the skin with a fork and flip often.
In your largest soup pot, add two tablespoons of the olive oil. Add the onions and salt, and saute until the onions soften up, five minutes or so. Add the garlic, ginger, spice mixture, and turmeric. Cook, stirring frequently, until fragrant-about a minute or so.
Turn the heat up to medium-high and add the spinach to the pan. Stir as it reduces and wilts, which will only take a few minutes.
Slowly stir in the yogurt, little by little. If you add it all at once and forget to stir it may curdle. Add a generous squeeze of fresh lemon juice, stir in the paneer, (and turkey sausage) and serve hot.
Garam Masala Spice Mixture
If you only have the ground versions of these spices cut the measurements roughly in half
- 2 tablespoons cumin seed
- 1 tablespoon coriander seed
- 2 teaspoons mustard seed (I was out of mustard seed so I actually just put added a tiny dollop of dijon mustard to the pan)
- 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 1/8 teaspoon cardamom seeds
- 3 whole cloves
If using the seed versions of these spices, in a mortar and pestle, grind all of the spices together into a fine powder and use as directed.
If you’re using the ground versions of the spices to make the mixture, mix together and add to dish as directed.