Nutritionally, cheese is concentrated milk with a longer shelf-life and many uses. Despite that it may smell like old shoes, people – especially Europeans – have cultivated an acquired taste for it since prehistoric times.
The fermenting process was likely accidentally discovered by storing milk in containers made from animal stomach, in which it naturally curdled as a reaction to rennet. Gradually it led to using the inner mucosa of the fourth stomach chamber of slaughtered, unweaned calves as the main coagulation agent necessary for making hard, ripened cheese.
By Roman times, pressing curds, and salting and aging them, was already an established art. Today, Europeans are still the world’s top cheesemongers and consumers, closely followed by Americans who started to produce their cheddars in an assembly-line as early as in 1851. Although at the dawn of 1900s scientists developed microbial starters to replace the more laborious and expensive animal rennet, there are some cheeses – like Parmesan – that solely rely on traditional ingredients and methods.
For those who follow dietary cultures of Hinduism, Judaism or Islam, or even the ethical codes of vegetarianism, eating cheese that requires slaughtering is out of question. From the point of view of sattvic (pure) lifestyle, the process of ripening itself is questionable because it is actually nothing else than controlling spoilage: many of the odor and flavor molecules in an aged cheese are same as those found in rotten foods.
In India, acid-set soft cheese known as chhena could be perhaps called "the mother-cheese" that predates recorded history. It is prepared by adding lemon juice (or some other sour-agent: yogurt, buttermilk or citric acid) to boiling milk to separate the curds from the whey. It is the simplest kind of fresh cheese widely used both in savory and sweet preparations.
When you wrap these curds in cloth and press them under a weight until they turn into a solid mass, which you can dice and use in curries or salads, you get paneer. It is probably the best known Asian cheese in the West, and you have likely bumped into it when dining in an Indian restaurant. Does palak paneer, kadai paneer, matar paneer, paneer butter masala, paneer tikka, paneer korma or shahi paneer ring a bell?
It’s no secret I love paneer and usually make it once or twice a week. For me, it personifies the generosity and kindness of cows. It is luscious and comforting. These are my tips for making light and fluffy paneer:
- Use only organic full-fat milk
- Cook it in a heavy bottom pan over a moderate heat
- As soon as it reaches the boiling point, turn off the heat and add gradually as little lemon juice as it takes to curdle the milk (about 1 lemon per 3 liters / 12 cups milk)
- Stir the milk very gently (not vigorously)
- Drain and wrap the curds in cloth, and press the bundle under a weight (a pot filled with water, for example) only for 5 to 10 minutes: paneer will remain moist but you are still able to cut it into cubes
Although this dish is all about paneer, it’s also about aromatics and texture to which paneer lends a plump body. There are countless spice combinations you could opt for, but I have used a simple and subtle one today to highlight the unique hay-like fragrance and vivid pigment of saffron.
There is a lot of inconsistency in the potency of saffron. Look for deep crimson stigmas and don’t compromise the price!
Just because I found a coconut loitering in the kitchen this morning, I utilized it, but I’ve made the recipe succesfully with cream or even with homemade yogurt instead of coconut milk. If you go for the yogurt, add it after the cashew paste has properly thickened and simmer it over a low heat to prevent it from curdling.
Paneer from 3 liters / 12 cups organic full fat milk
1 long red, seeded chili (mild), or to taste
A thumb-size piece of peeled ginger root
A little bit of water to paste the chili and ginger
125 ml (½ cup) cashew nuts
125 ml (½ cup) whey (or water)
A half of fresh coconut
500 ml (2 cups) whey (or water) to make coconut milk
2 Tbsp ghee (or butter or oil)
2 tsp freshly ground coriander powder
1 tsp freshly ground jeera powder
125 – 250 ml (½ - 1 cup) additional whey (or water) for attaining desired consistency
2 generous pinches of freshly powdered saffron
1 generous pinch of freshly powdered cardamom
2 tsp Himalayan salt or to taste
Make the paneer as instructed in the text above. Press it for less than 10 minutes. Preserve the whey.
Wash and peel the tomatoes, and remove the stems. Purée the tomatoes in an electric spice mill or food processor. Set the purée aside.
Make a paste from the chili, ginger and as much water as needed. This amount of chili gives only mild heat. Use more, if you want a stronger taste. Set the paste aside.
Make a paste from the cashew nuts and whey (or water). Set it aside.
Cut the coconut half into smaller chunks and blitz the pieces with whey (or water) in an electric spice mill or food processor. Place thin cheesecloth in a sieve and place the sieve over a bowl. Now pour the coconut paste onto the cloth, make a bundle and squeeze out as much liquid as possible. Set the milk aside and use the coconut meat for chutney or other cooking.
Heat up the ghee (or butter or oil) in a pot or pan over moderate heat until hot but not smoking. Add the coriander and jeera powder, mix once with a spatula and immediately pour in the chili-ginger paste. Cook it for about 10 minutes until the ghee (or butter or oil) separates from it. You may want to mix it a couple of times to prevent it from scalding. Always grind the spices as needed because they quickly lose the aroma.
Pour in the tomato paste and cook it for another 10 or 15 minutes until the ghee (or butter or oil) separates from it.
Add the cashew paste. Mix it well and then add the coconut milk. Lower the temperature and simmer until the sauce thickens. You may add some more whey (or water) to achieve a desired consistency.
Finally add the saffron, cardamom and salt. Mix well. Then add the paneer dices. Let the flavors infuse for a couple of minutes before serving.