Paneer: California Palak Paneer

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

Creamy Fennel and Greens Soup AKA Swamp Soup

Tell your kids that Shrek eats this for dinner, maybe then they’ll try it.

Steve’s very kind. He tells me almost every night that whatever I have cooked is the most delicious thing I’ve ever made. Rarely does he say anything negative, and even if he doesn’t like something, the worst thing he’ll say is, “It’s good.” The other night I could sense his displeasure in  the soup I made for dinner. I got the, “It’s good” response and could see Steve was having problems choking it down.  I  wasn’t pleased with the outcome, either. The recipe, “Creamy Fennel and Greens soup” is on, with a 3 1/2 out of 4 star rating. I thought that, at the very least, I would be able to use up some of the veggies in our fridge by adding them to what looked like a delicious vegetable soup. It wasn’t!

With recipe in hand, I went to work chopping and sautéing the onion and fennel, cleaning the collard greens and spinach, adding water, cooking the collards, then the spinach, and finally blending everything together. I blended, and blended, and blended some more but it still wasn’t the smooth puree I was striving for. As I tasted the soup I realized it was missing something. It needed more salt, more spice, more pepper, and more fat. I added more salt, pepper, and whole milk to the mix (the recipe called for cream, which we didn’t have in the house) but it still wasn’t smooth or tasty. The consolation was that I knew it was healthy thanks to all those green veggies. A small consolation indeed.

Usually, the food we eat has to meet three criteria: it has to be healthy, it has to taste great and it has to look like something we’d want to eat.

The taste and looks were lacking with this one. The soup looked like something scooped out of a swamp and tasted like it looked too, very very green. One of the fibrous veggies simply would not break apart in the blender and we found ourselves chocking back fibers that were so fine they reminded us of one of our cat’s furballs. Not the best soup I’ve made, but not the worst (very close).

The next day I tried my best to doctor-up the swamp soup in an effort to turn it into something palatable. After straining the solids from the liquid I pureed the solids again. After 10 minutes of blending it still was not completely smooth. I then added more salt and reheated. I put half the soup back in the blender one more time and, with the blender running, added 4 tablespoons of cold butter to the warm soup. It helped enrich the soup but still didn’t help smooth it. Whoever gave this recipe a 3 or 4 star rating on seriously needs to reevaluate their culinary tastes. And the recipe writer needs to take a good, hard look at this one. We think it could use some work.

Alas, I think this batch will just have to be eaten as a “nutritious” soup and not anything that looks or tastes good. I’m freezing the rest of it for one of those rainy days (I hope summer comes soon) because I just can’t stand the thought of wasting all those nutritious greens. If you do make this recipe, try eating the soup along with a grilled cheese sandwich to make it more palatable. After all, everything tastes better with grilled cheese!

Creamy Fennel and Greens Soup AKA Swamp Soup

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 fennel bulb, trimmed and chopped
1 small onion, chopped
1 pound mixed dark leafy greens such as collard and beet, coarse stems and center ribs discarded and leaves chopped
6 cups water
3 cups baby spinach (2 ounces)
4 tablespoons cold butter
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Garnish: fennel fronds or chopped dill


Heat oil and butter in a 6-quart heavy pot over medium heat until foam subsides. Add fennel, onion, 3/4 teaspoon salt, and 1/8 teaspoon pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened and lightly browned, 7 to 8 minutes.

Add leafy greens (but not spinach) and water to pot and simmer, covered, until greens are tender, about 30 minutes. Stir in spinach and cook, uncovered, just until wilted, about 1 minute.

Purée soup in batches in a blender (use caution when blending hot liquids) until smooth adding chunks of butter to the running blender, then return to pot. Stir in cream and lemon juice and reheat over low heat. Season with salt.

Cooks’ note: Look through your spice rack to add some flavor to this soup, maybe crumbled bacon or blue cheese on top would help. Also try adding a potato or two to the soup when cooking the collard greens. This will give the texture a more velvet feel.

Soup can be made 2 days ahead and chilled. Reheat or serve cold.