Never in my wildest moments, would I ever expect to be in an article under the Forbes masthead, OR, in the same piece as a fastfood giant was being discussed.
Well, I'll talk about the Forbes piece one of these days. For a piece on cheese, a freelancer asked me about paneer.
For a while, my freezer would always have a block of paneer waiting for an impromptu dish. Until I discovered something ‘off’ with it – it appeared that they were skimming the fat, quite literally, and replacing it with oils, to create a product that did not agree with my skin. I tell you, my skin reacts to all things fake.
So, I rely on making paneer more often than not, wont skip it if I have to eat a small portion. But for food made at home, for regular consumption, it is home-made paneer for us.
The article came out yesterday in ‘The Takeout’, and my paneer info became part of the write up. Here is the uncut version of my Q & A.
1) What makes paneer so versatile?
NG: Except a few places where fresh milk is difficult to find, milk is available nearly in every part of the globe. Traditional Indian paneer is made with milk obtained from water buffaloes or cows, or a combination of these. Other cultures use a blend of soy milk and buffalo milk, sheep’s milk etc. Depending on how much fat is in the milk, the resulting paneer may be softer, and sweeter or sharp and sourer.
Those who like tofu, or like to cook with cheese must consider paneer as a good alternative. It is considered a farmers’ cheese, relatively easy to make at home and therefore a reliable cheese-product. Because of its nearly neutral taste, it adapts and takes on flavors very easily, think of it like a sponge that takes on whatever flavor is added in it or around it. It is lower in fat when compared to other forms of protein and is far easier to digest, but is not vegan. Paneer holds its shape in smaller chunks – crumbles but does not melt, and gives the texture of feta cheese without the tart taste. Paneer is easy to make at home, and such a paneer is softer and crumbles easily. Store-bought paneer is often compressed under high pressure and is a chunkier, firmer product that can withstand slicing and dicing easily.
2) How is it best incorporated in dishes to maximize its flavor and texture?
NG: Paneer does really well in both sweet and savory forms. Store bought paneer is very firm, like firm tofu and does not absorb the flavors easily. Cut this into desired sized chunks and place such firm paneer chunks in a bowl of boiling hot water for a few minutes and discard the water before using to maximize its ability to take on flavors. Dry this paneer out on a paper towel before using. Such paneer chunks can be fried, or used as is. They can be added to any cream based or tomato-based stew. If grilling paneer, marinate it in your favorite spices with a light basting of oil, and cook on a hot grill for a few minutes for a flame-kissed delicacy. Another quick addition is to add a few chunks of fried paneer into a pot of rice along with some peas and carrots. It makes a light a refreshing side.
In my opinion, softer paneer is just as easy to use. It can be added into any dish in chunks (or crumbled in). Since it does not melt, it will retain its shape. There are many traditional forms of using soft paneer in desserts. Soft crumbled paneer mixed with sweetened condensed milk makes a wonderful filling for dessert crepes.
3) Do you have any tips on creating a paneer burger similar to McSpicy Paneer?
NG: In order to create a burger that uses paneer, one of two methods can be used – the easiest is to use the paneer as is, and the second is the mashed potato method.
The first method is best when you have a large block of firm paneer. Trim it to shape, no more than ½” thick, and soften the paneer by placing it for a few minutes in boiling water. Remove it from the water, dry it completely and then marinate it in your favorite spices – traditional favorites are a sprinkling of cayenne pepper, with ginger, garlic, a light squeeze of lemon and salt. Shallow fry the pieces in a saucepan with a little oil until the edges are seared and use them in your sandwich.
The recipe to make a spicy paneer burger follows:
Spicy Paneer Burger
Makes: Eight servings
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: 15-20 minutes
1 tbsp ghee or oil
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp paste of fresh ginger
1 tsp paste of fresh garlic
¼ tsp turmeric powder, optional
2 tsp cayenne pepper powder
½ tsp garam masala, optional
1 cup crumbled soft paneer or grated firm paneer
1 lb baking potatoes, skinned, boiled and mashed
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 tsp sugar
Salt, to taste
Leaves from 10-12 stems of cilantro, finely chopped
1 cup Panko bread crumbs
Oil for shallow frying
Grate firm paneer in a large bowl and pour hot water over it to soften. Drain the water completely and set aside. If using soft paneer, this step can be avoided. Simply crumble the soft paneer until it appears like coarse breadcrumbs.
Heat some oil in a small frying pan. As it heats up, add the cumin seeds and allow them to release their flavors into the medium. Quickly add the paste of ginger, garlic, turmeric if using, cayenne pepper powder, and garam masala if using, and remove from heat.
In a separate bowl, combine the crumbled paneer with the mashed potatoes and the spicy oil mix. Add salt, sugar, lemon juice and chopped cilantro if using. Using clean hands, knead the entire mixture together until well combined.
To prepare the patties: Grease both palms of your hands and divide the mixture into large patties and roll each portion gently until it is circular. Apply slight pressure on each circular portion with the palm of your hand to flatten it slightly, no less than ¼" thick. Roll each patty in the bread crumbs until covered and set aside until ready to use.
To cook, warm 4-6 tablespoons of oil in a shallow skillet. Tilt the skillet to coat the surface with oil. Place each patty in the hot oil, and using a spatula, gently slide each patty towards the outer edge of the skillet. Continue until there is no more room in the skillet. Return to the first patty and flip it over if one side is cooked to golden brown. Repeat on the other side, and when both sides are cooked, remove and drain on a paper towel.
Add to your favorite burger or sandwich.
Note: This is an edited piece of an earlier post. As you know, I seldom talk about fast food in my work.