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Mutter “Paneer”

June 2, 2010

I’ve had it in my head for a while now that it would be possible to create a vegan paneer dish. First I had thought of making Malai  Kofta (literally cream dumplings), which is essentially pan fried balls of paneer, vegetables and spices in a creamy tomato sauce. It is one of my favorite dishes to get at Akbar in Columbia (MD). If you’ve ever been to an Indian restaurant you’ll have noticed how heavy and greasy the food is. That was another goal of mine– to create restaurant style Indian food that was kinder to your heart. I have to clarify though, most home made Indian food, like my mother and sister in law’s, is not the same as the kind you’ll get in a restaurant. They still use oil, and lots of it, but in smaller doses. My sister-in-law converted to olive oil a few years back and we’ve been working on switching her mother to it as well. The vegetarian Woodlands in Langley Park (MD) provides a light side to Indian restaurant fare, unless you get Gobi Manchurian. (Side note: Gobi Manchurian is Indian-Chinese, spicy, battered and fried cauliflower with spicy Indian and Chinese influenced spices. Jay’s favorite.) Woodlands is also a different kind of Indian cuisine, South Indian, whereas Akbar is North Indian.

I usually think about what I’m going to make for dinner on my drive to work in the morning. I knew I wanted some Indian food, but we weren’t going to the in-laws. I debated whether I should attempt malai kofta, but didn’t feel like making the balls, then frying them, them making the actual dinner. Another dish that I like is Mutter Paneer. Mutter (peas) Paneer (cheese) is very close to malai kofta except the cheese is cubed and fried. Much easier in my mind than making koftas. I had everything except serrano chilies and tomato sauce so I stopped by the market and spent under 3 bucks– I also bought a bag of frozen peas and then realized I had some already, oh well.

Next question is, where am I going to get the recipe. Hooray for housewarming parties– a friend of ours, who happens to be Indian, gave us 660 Curries by Raghavan Iyer. This is one massive cookbook, 809 pages of Indian goodness. It covers “curries” with meat and fish, vegetables and paneer, legume and rice (biryani). There are spice blends, appetizers, side dishes and breads. He even covers metric conversion, a glossary of ingredients, and mail-order sources for spices and legumes. In short, if you want to learn to cook Indian food this is your bible. In my quest for veganized-restaurant-style Indian food little did I know that the secrets would be in this book. I never expected an Indian chef to include vegan solutions. Iyer does offer vegan solutions, with a bit of sarcasm, but I’ll get to that in a bit. First we’re going to fry the paneer, I mean tofu.

I had Wild Wood Plain Sprouted Super Firm Tofu in the fridge. I drained it and pressed it just a bit with my hands between paper towels. Next I cut it into around 1″ cubes as per Iyer’s paneer specs. Since I didn’t want to deep fry the tofu I used his pan-fried instructions: Heat 1/4 cup canola oil (I used extra virgin olive oil) in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add the cubes in a single layer and cook, turning them occasionally, until all sides are honey-brown and crispy, 7 to 10 minutes. Transfer them to a paper-towel-lined plate to drain.

Make sure you watch the cubes as you cook, I left one side to cook too long and it got extra crispy. According to Iyer fried paneer can be refrigerated in a bowl of water for up to a week, changing the water daily. Cubes can be frozen (in a freezer-safe bag!!) without sitting in water for up to 2 months. I’m assuming this can be transferred to tofu, but I have not tried it yet.

While I pan-fried the tofu I got the rest of the ingredients together.

Mutter “Paneer:” (My changes are italicized.)

1 small onion, coarsely chopped

3 lengthwise slices fresh ginger (each 1 1/2 inches long, 1 inch wide, and 1/8 inch thick)

3 large garlic cloves (I used one HUGE clove)

1 or 2 fresh green Thai, cayenne or serrano chiles, to taste, stems removed (I used 1 serrano, partially seeded)

2 tablespoons canola oil (extra virgin olive oil)

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

1 fresh or dried bay leaf

1 cup tomato sauce (I ended up using 2 8 oz cans, I like sauce)

2 teaspoons Bin bhuna hua garam masala (special masala blend, see below)

1 teaspoon coarse sea salt

1 1/2 cups frozen peas

1/4 cup heavy cream (vegan nut/water mixture, see below)

8 ounces 1-in cube pan-fried Doodh paneer (one package firm or extra firm tofu, cubed and pan-fried)

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro (I omitted this, Jay is in the I hate cilantro group on Facebook)

First we’ll discuss Bin bhuna hua garam masala. This is a special spice blend from the cookbook. According to Iyer, this is a good alternative for commercial curry powders. Want to know what I thought when faced with creating a spice blend? Oooh, does this mean I can actually use my mortar and pestle?! When my mum came to visit last June we went to a little shop in Old Ellicott Ciy that happened to have some Le Creuset cookware. One item was a stoneware mortar and pestle in Caribbean Blue. Being the kind, giving mother she is she got it for me. Is it sad that the first time I used it was a year later?

Some of the spices listed that were supposed to be in their whole form I substituted with the ground spice.

Bin bhuna hua garam masala:

2 tablespoons coriander seeds

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

1 teaspoon black peppercorns

1/2 teaspoon whole cloves

1/2 teaspoon cardamom seeds from white pods

2 dried bay leaves

3 or 4 dried red Thai or cayenne chiles, to taste, stems removed OR 1 teaspoon ground red pepper

For the coriander and cumin I used a blend my mother-in-law calls dhana jiru. It’s is a blend of both powders. I used 2 tablespoons.

First I ground the peppercorns, cloves and cardamom seeds. This was fun and I was able to grind it pretty fine. Not super fine, but good enough for me. Next I added the bay leaves. Note: bay leaves are hard to grind in a mortar and pestle. I took them out, broke them apart with my fingers and put them back in. I then added the red pepper, what the mother in law calls mirchu (please excuse my phonetic spelling). Finally I added the dhana jiru. Apparently this makes 1/3 cup. You can also use a food processor.

Vegan “heavy cream:”

Thank you Iyer for making a note about using alternatives to heavy cream. He does not advise the use of whole or low fat milk. He does suggest a nut/water mixture for vegans/lactose “intollerants” (my emphasis). Puree 1/2 cup raw cashews or almonds and 1/4 to 1/2 cup water until smooth. That simple. I used almonds. He also suggests subbing oil for butter. In the same note he mentions using extra firm tofu for paneer. Way ahead of you dude.

Now to the main event…

Use a food processor to mince the onion, ginger, garlic and chile(s).

Heat the oil in a medium-sized pan over medium-high heat. Sprinkle cumin seeds in oil. This is called vagar, and often times it is done in a separate pan then added to what ever dish you’re making. Most often it includes mustard seeds. Add the bay leaf. Only let these sizzle for 5 to 10 seconds!!! They burn easily. Add the minced onion blend and sautee until mixture is a light brown, 5 to 7 minutes.

Stir in the tomato sauce. I used one can first then after it cooked a bit added more. 

Eventually I added the whole second can. Add garam masala and salt. Once the sauce starts to bubble get all over your apron (wear one!) lower the heat to medium. Put a lid on it, partially, and simmer stirring occasionally. After about 5 to 10 minutes you should be able to see some oil around the edges.

Pour in 1/4 cup water and add the peas. Cover, let simmer, stir occasionally. Let simmer for about 8 to 10 minutes, until the peas are heated and have an “olive green” color.

Add the “cream,” “paneer,” and cilantro. Cover and simmer, stirring gently, until the cream and tofu are warm. About 5 minutes. Remove bay leaf and serve!

I made brown rice to serve with the Mutter Paneer. The meal had Jay’s stamp of approval. I think he was surprised it was so good!

Iyer, Raghavan. 660 Curries. Workman Publishing: New York, 2008.

Thank you Rahul for the cookbook!!

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Rahul permalink
    June 2, 2010 4:45 pm

    Yay!!!! You used the book. It is an awesome book. And dinner looks amazing. So when are you inviting me over??!!

  2. Mum permalink
    June 2, 2010 10:08 pm

    Wow…what great instructions! Not a bad thing to be using the mortar/pestle now for the first time. Extra special tools can be a bit intimidating to use at first (probably why I’ve never bought one for myself). I’ll have to remember that Jay doesn’t like cilantro… The finished product looks awesome!! 🙂

  3. Chris permalink
    June 8, 2010 1:34 pm

    that looks amazing!

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