I like looking at cook books, but the Indian cooking ones usually scare me. The list of ingredients will be long and complicated and some recipes will say something to the effect of “two medium tomatoes” and “one large onion” and “a generous pinch of cumin.” I am unsure of what that means, having had a bad experience or two with such directions in the past. Invariably my proportion of tomatoes to onions will be completely off, and the overly generous pinch of cumin will have made my food too bitter. “Spices are supposed to be the seasoning not the main ingredient,” my husband will tactfully remark when he comes home to a rather heavily spiced poorly cooked aloo dum, that tastes even stranger because I’ve tried to add, what I believe to be offsets to the extra cumin and tomatoes, including lots of extra butter and yogurt. At the other extreme are recipes that spell out 350 grams of potatoes and 200 grams of green beans, and I find these impossible too. It’s far easier to visualize things in cups and tablespoons than upon a weighing scale.
So when I come across a Paneer Makhani recipe that provides directions such as “two cups of tomato puree, one cup of chopped onions and two cups of chopped paneer pieces” in the process of casually flipping through a cookbook, I get very excited because I know that one cup means one beautiful measurable cup. About 200ml or 237 ml to be more precise. Clearly the ratio of tomatoes to onions is two to one. I try out the recipe, it comes out fairly well, and then it gets added to my limited cooking repertoire. Each time I have to produce a “party dish” or when my paneer-loving younger brother comes to visit, this recipe makes an appearance. I never have to think. The key ingredients are easily measurable and the prep and cooking time is under an hour. I know the taste of the dish will vary based upon the quality of the tomatoes in season or the pungency of the onions. But by and large, my paneer is always successful, and over time I start changing an ingredient or two here and there, and soon have my own favorite version of Paneer Butter Masala.
Paneer, a pressed Indian home-made cheese, is sold packaged in the refrigerator section of most Indian grocery stores. What makes this paneer dish really flavorful is the use of a little chopped onions and dried fenugreek leaves, fried separately and added to the dish at the end, along with a tablespoonful of honey (ideas borrowed from the queen bee of Indian vegetarian cooking, Tarla Dalal). Red chilli powder is optional as I find that my toddler son is far more likely to enjoy the paneer without the chilli. I also like to finish the gravy and then add the chopped paneer pieces at the end after turning off the flame. I let the paneer marinate in the gravy, and then reheat thoroughly just before serving. You can reheat whenever the dish needs to be served, up until the next day. The paneer will absorb all the flavors of the sauce, and become juicy and succulent.
Paneer Butter Masala
2 tbsps clarified butter called ghee
Optional, pieces of whole garam masala: a 1/2” piece of cinnamon stick, 1 clove, 1 green cardamom pod, 1 large bay leaf
Wet masala, to be ground to a paste together:
1 ½ cup of onions, 1 cup cut into large chunks and the rest finely diced. Keep the diced portion aside.
2 tbsps of broken cashew nuts, or 7-8 whole pieces
2-3 cloves of garlic, peeled
1” piece of ginger, peeled
To be added later:
2 cups of tomato puree made from freshly chopped or canned tomatoes
½ tsp of garam masala powder
1 tsp of turmeric
½ tsp of cumin powder
1 tbsp of dried fenugreek leaves called kasuri methi
1 tsp of red chilli powder, optional
For the end:
1 tbsp of honey
1 cup of milk
2 cups or 400g/14 oz of paneer, chopped into small pieces
salt to taste
1. Heat the ghee in a pan on medium heat and when hot, add the pieces of whole garam masala (optional). After a few seconds of sizzling, add the ground wet masala paste comprised of onions, garlic, ginger and cashew nuts. Fry until the paste turns medium brown.
2. Add the tomato puree, along with a ½ cup of water. Add the turmeric and chilli powder (if using) and cook until the oil floats to the surface of the masala. This will take a while, about 30 minutes. Stir occasionally to ensure that the paste is cooking evenly.
3. Meanwhile, fry the ½ cup of chopped onions and kasuri methi in a separate pan with a bit of ghee. Add this to the cooked paste, along with milk, a ½ cup of water, cumin powder, garam masala powder, honey and salt to taste. If the sauce seems too thick, add some more milk. Cook until the mixture comes to a boil. Add the paneer and continue cooking for a few minutes if serving immediately. Otherwise, turn off the flame and reheat when ready to serve.