Matar Paneer

Matar Paneer

This morning I wake up bright up and early.  I am going to make my mother-in-law’s matar paneer for the first time.  Her delicious recipe comes from various North Indian neighbors, such as “Singh Bhabhiji” from her old residential colony in Bombay.  So I call mummy who is back in Vizag to talk about the recipe.  We debate on ratios first, which is a wise thing to do as I have discovered in Indian cooking.  I have a packet of Nanak-branded paneer, which is about 400g or 2 cups of paneer.  Mummy thinks that 2 cups of peas should balance the two cups of paneer, along with a sauce that has been made with 2 cups of chopped onions and an equal quantity of tomato puree.  The tomato puree is going to be different today.  I usually take fresh tomatoes and puree them in the food processor.  Today I am going to dip them in hot water for a few minutes, remove the skins and then puree the tomatoes.  The sauce that results from this process is different in flavor and texture, sweeter and smoother, it seems.

The recipe takes a little while to make, about an hour including clean-up, and I’ve realized that an hour is usually a reasonable time to make an Indian dish.  Shorter doesn’t work, and longer is just depressing.  I start feeling as though I am a kitchen slave when the clock starts ticking over the allotted hour.  The trick to feeling less like a slave, I have learnt, is to indeed watch the clock.  For instance I always believe that emptying the dishwasher, a task that I detest, has taken hours out of my precious lifetime.  When I actually measure how long it takes — I find that it’s no more than a 5 or 7 minute task.  Even the dreaded clean-up after cooking, when timed, seems to take no more than 15 minutes.

I discover that the matar paneer is surprisingly easy to make.  It comes out fairly well but I find that I am searching for my mother-in-law’s dish when I taste it.  To make this dish truly my own, I will have to make it a couple more times, and then I will be certain of what my matar paneer tastes like.

Matar Paneer

400g or 2 cups of paneer, chopped
2 cups of frozen green peas, soaked in warm water to defrost and then drained
2 cups of onions, diced
2-3 large cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped finely
A thumb sized piece of ginger, peeled and chopped finely
2 cups of tomato puree, made with fresh whole tomatoes dipped briefly into boiling water and then the skin removed.
1/4 cup of whole fat plain yogurt, called dahi
2 tsps of coriander powder
1 tsp of cumin powder
1 tsp of garam masala
1/2 tsp of red chilli powder, optional
3 tbsps of ghee
Salt to taste

1. Heat the ghee in a pan on medium heat.  Add the onions, ginger and garlic.  Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions turn a medium brown.  Add the tomato puree and cook until the mixture glistens with the ghee that is released.  This will take a while, about 20+ minutes.

2. Add the yogurt and keep stirring until it disappears into the sauce.

3. Add coriander powder, cumin powder, garam masala and chilli powder (if using), along with salt.  Taste, and add a pinch more of the spices if needed, taking care to not over-spice the dish.  Add the chopped paneer and the drained peas.  Add some water, about 1-2 cups.  Bring to boil and allow to cook for a few minutes in order that the paneer imbibes the flavors of the sauce.  Remove from flame and serve hot.

Paneer Butter Masala

Paneer Butter Masala

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

Serves 4

Initial tarka:
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

Dry masalas:
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.