To a vegetarian in India, Paneer or cottage cheese is equivalent to what meat means for non-vegetarians. This is one food which is liked by vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike. In Indian marriages and parties, a paneer dish is a must! A huge number of different recipes exist and are continuously evolving, but the homely palak paneer is one of the most popular paneer dishes in India. This relatively low-spiced paneer dish is served as a side dish with flatbreads or rice.
Full-cream buffalo milk makes awesome paneer. Buffalo-milk paneer is soft and creamy in texture. This kind of paneer is very famous in Delhi, Haryana and its neighbours. Interestingly, in these places, paneer is usually cut into big cubes or triangular pieces for curries. However, in Western India, such as Mumbai, paneer is cut into medium-sized cubes. Next in line is cow’s milk paneer, which although is not as creamy and rich as the buffalo-milk variety, still it is preferred by a lot of people who prefer cow’s milk over the stronger-smelling buffalo milk.
In Eastern India (e.g., West Bengal), cow’s milk paneer called chhena is mostly used as a raw material for various mouth-watering desserts or sweets. In North India (e.g., Haryana), paneer is mainly cooked with spices and other ingredients (depending on the type of the paneer dish) to dish out yummy curries!
Back in India, paneer sellers bring huge blocks of fresh paneer to the market every day, which he cuts and sells according to the needs of the customer. At the end of the day, the whole block would be sold out!
How to make paneer at home?
Although you’ll easily (and definitely) get paneer in any Indian foodstore or supermarket (try the Google search for locating an Indian store in your area), the major Indian brands being Amul Paneer and Kohinoor Paneer, it is easy and preferred if you make the paneer at home. This way, you are sure of the quality too!
Fresh cow’s milk is preferred. If you are lucky enough to locate an Indian store in your country, I advise you to buy milk from these stores for paneer-making. In Hong Kong, I tried making paneer with a few reputed milk brands, but probably because milk sold in tetrapacks is sold homogenised, this yields paneer of somewhat powdery consistency, which is undesirable.
You need citric acid, lime juice or plain vinegar to precipitate or curdle the paneer from the milk. I prefer lime juice for mine! Some people also use the one- or two-day-old whey of previously made paneer for this. Please note that the amounts of these curdling agents vary slightly with the quality of the milk used. Also, be careful of one thing while curdling: if you add more lime juice (or any curdling agent) than needed, the paneer will lose its softness and will become comparatively harder.
Bring 1 litre full-cream milk to boil, stirring in between. Keep the flame to medium throughout. Add the solution of 2 tbsp lime juice in 2 tbsp water. Stir gently until the milk curdles and you see solids separating out. If this does not happen, you have to add extra lime juice until this state is reached. Strain the curdled milk through a muslin cloth. Now put the paneer (with the cloth) under a heavy weight for 1 hour, so that it forms a block of paneer, about 1 cm thick. Remove the paneer from the cloth carefully and cut into cubes of desired size.
We are now ready for making the Palak Paneer (paneer can be replaced with tofu)!
- Paneer (cut into medium-sized cubes): 500 g
- Spinach (chopped roughly): 1 bundle
- Bay leaves: 2
- Cinnamon sticks (one inch each): 2
- Green cardamoms: 2
- Cloves: 3
- Chilli powder: 1 tsp
- Tomato (pureed): ¼ cup
- Onion (chopped): ½ cup
- Garlic cloves (big-sized, chopped): 6
- Cumin seeds: ½ tsp
- Butter: 1 tsp
- Water: 1 cup
- Oil (divided): 6 tbsp
- Salt (divided): 1½ tsp
Method of preparation:
First, fry all the paneer pieces lightly in 2 tbsp oil and ½ tsp salt and immediately immerse these fried pieces in cold water (this is a trick which makes the fried paneer cubes soft and moist, thus preventing the paneer from absorbing all the water from a curry, making the wet curry dry!). Frying allows paneer to lose its raw smell and taste and the salt percolates inside each piece at the same time.
Second, boil the chopped spinach with 1 cup water. Cool and make a puree. Set aside.
Make a fine paste of the chopped onions and garlic, using the food processor. Set the paste aside.
Heat the frying pan with rest of the oil and when it smokes, add the bay leaves, cumin seeds, cinnamon sticks, green cardamoms and cloves.
When cumin seeds just turn brown, add the onion-garlic paste and the rest of the salt. Cook for 5 min.
Now add the tomato puree. Cook this till oil starts leaving the sides of the pan (takes around 7 min).
Add the boiled spinach puree and the red chilli powder and mix. Cook for 5 min.
Add the fried paneer pieces, slowly coat the cubed paneer with the gravy and bring this to boil over medium flame. Cook further for 10 min over slow flame and add the butter. Mix well.
Palak Paneer is ready to be served! Top the dish with 1 tsp fresh cream (optional).