Paneer is a fresh cow milk cheese that is made from adding an acid like lemon juice, citric acid, or vinegar (buttermilk works as well) to heated milk. The milk forms curds (curdles) that separate from the whey when the acid is introduced. The curds are then skimmed from the whey to drain and then pressed to remove any excess liquid. Paneer is a non-melting cheese that is used primarily in South Asian cuisine, especially in Indian cooking. Since paneer does not melt, it can be grilled or coated with flour or wrapped in dough and then deep-fried.
We recently took the Cheese Making 101 class taught by Mary Karlin, author of Artisan Cheese Making at Home, from The Cheese School of San Francisco. Paneer was one of the first cheeses we finished, and it was a lot easier than one might think. The magic of the cheese making was all in the patience it takes to heat milk slowly and a little chemistry. And like most culinary adventures, learning to adjust to unforeseen circumstances (such as a cool breeze from an open window) is all part of the learning process.
While we are novices to Indian cooking, like cheese making, we were excited to jump into another experiment. One of our favorite Indian dishes is Palak Paneer (Spinach Paneer). It’s a creamy spinach curry dish with cubes of paneer cheese. If you have picky kids that love cheese but hate vegetables, this might be a good one to serve them. With a willingness to be adventurous and a sense of how to use what’s available to us in our pantry, we scoured the web for inspiration for our Palak Paneer. The result is an Indian dish at heart, but with a little creative flair from California. It’s not authentic, but it is mighty tasty.
California Palak Paneer
8 ounces paneer, cubed
2 teaspoons dry turmeric (divided)
3 tablespoons butter (divided)
1 large onion, minced
1 small cinnamon stick
2 bay leaves
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 14 ounce can tomatoes, drained
1 tablespoon cumin (preferably freshly ground)
2 pounds fresh spinach, cleaned and stemmed, leaves only
In a large non-stick sauté pan, over medium heat, melt 1 tablespoon butter until bubbles subside. Toss the paneer with 1 teaspoon turmeric, coating all sides. Add the paneer to the pan and brown on all sides, about 1-2 minutes per side. Remove the cheese from the pan and set aside.
Add I tablespoon butter to the pan. When bubbles subside add the minced onion, cinnamon stick and bay leaves and sauté until translucent, about 6-8 minutes. Add cumin and remaining dry turmeric to the pan and sauté for another couple of minutes until spices are fragrant. In a small hot spot in the pan, add the minced garlic and cook for another 30 seconds, until fragrant. Add the canned tomatoes and cook for a few more minutes to allow the flavors to marry. Remove the cinnamon stick and bay leaves.
In batches, add the fresh spinach leaves to the onions and tomatoes. Using tongs, flip the vegetables, and continue to add more spinach as it wilts, flipping until all the spinach has been added. Once the spinach has wilted, take off the heat and pour into a food processor. With the processor running, add the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter and process for 10 -20 seconds or until all the butter is incorporated.
Return the spinach mixture to the sauté pan and place back on the stove over low heat. Add the paneer to the spinach mixture and keep warm until ready to serve, or present the Paleek Paneer family style with the fried paneer on top of the spinach.