Last weekend at the store, I bought some paneer, figuring that if I had it in the house, I would have to find a way to cook with it. It was like I tricked myself into cooking Indian food! Or something. Maybe not like that at all, since it was no trick: I was ready to use my garam masala in something other than brownies, ready to toast some mustard seeds, ready to try my hand at a cuisine that is intriguing, and at the same time, terrifying to me. As a cook. As an eater, it is just intriguing; the only thing terrifying is how much naan I can eat in one sitting. Yummy naan.
I decide to start with a recipe I had a taste of one time: mattar paneer. Cheese and peas, what could be better than that? Paneer is a firm white cheese that doesn’t melt; it has a mild flavor (almost no flavor) and a squeaky texture somewhere between firm tofu and baby Swiss. The truth is that I am not familiar with any other recipes featuring paneer; mattar paneer is the only one I know, and I wasn’t ready to do a “blind” recipe search. So mattar paneer it would be. I found this recipe and started cooking! Rookie move: I should know better by now than to start a new recipe, especially one from an unfamiliar cuisine, without prepping properly. I didn’t have my ginger grated (because I thought it was dried ginger upon first glance), and somehow I missed the tomatoes altogether. I was up to the stage when they should have gone into the pan when I noticed my oversight. I never have fresh tomatoes on hand in November, but this didn’t seem like a canned-tomatoes-can-sub recipe, so I panicked a tiny bit… and then I remembered the grape tomatoes I bought at Trader Joe’s. Hmmm. I gave those a try, and they worked like a dream. I am so glad I didn’t use canned.
This is a great recipe. Yes, there are many ingredients and several of them are spices that may not be in your pantry right now (they are worth having on hand). But, the cooking techniques are straightforward and quite easy and the resulting dish is a tasty, tasty treat! I was so proud of myself, and my husband, normally skeptical of Indian food, asked for seconds. Curiously, our main critique was that the paneer was strangely chewy (which could be due to my inexperience with cooking it) and we would replace it next time with cubed tofu. Otherwise, the flavors were delicious and this recipe will be part of our winter repertoire. Next up, tikka masala!
- 6-8 oz. paneer, cubed
- 2 T. canola oil, divided
- 1/4 tsp. mustard seeds
- 1/2 tsp. cumin seed
- 1 small onion, chopped
- 1/2 tsp. fresh ginger, grated
- 3-4 garlic cloves, minced
- 1/2 c. grape tomatoes, halved
- 1/4 tsp. sugar (opt.)
- salt to taste
- 1/2 tsp. garam masala
- 1/2 tsp. chili powder
- 1/4 tsp. turmeric
- 3/4 tsp. coriander
- 1/4 c. water (as needed)
- 3/4 c. peas
- 2 T. heavy cream*
Heat 1 T. oil and fry paneer cubes until they brown, turning a few times for even coloring. Remove from the pan and set aside.
Add the other 1 T. oil to the pan and add mustard and cumin seeds. Heat on medium until seeds color and sputter. Don’t let them burn! Add onion, garlic and ginger to the pan and cook until onions soften, 3-5 minutes. Add tomatoes, salt and sugar, if using, and cook until tomatoes soften, 7-10 minutes; use the back of a wooden spoon to smash tomatoes to help the cooking process. After tomatoes cook down, you can blend the sauce with an immersion blender (I did) or leave it chunky. Add garam masala, chili powder, turmeric and coriander, then water, as needed, to thin out sauce to your desired consistency. Cook for 2-3 minutes and then add peas and cook until tender. Add cream, mix, and add paneer, stirring to coat with sauce. Simmer for 2-3 minutes to allow paneer to absorb flavors. Serve with rice, accompanied by naan.
*If you don’t want to use cream, you can use plain yogurt, or leave it out altogether.