Friday, January 27, 2012

Homemade Paneer

Lately, I've been embarking on new culinary adventures. I'm entering a zone that I've avoided for years -cooking Indian food. I love my parents' cooking and they live a mere 20 miles away. You can see how that's led to my having neither reason nor motivation to make the effort...until now. 

I wanted to experiment this weekend with an idea of masala-paneer phyllo turnovers. What I love about paneer is that it's mild and takes on the flavors of whatever you add to it. In this case, I plan on mixing into it a basic "masala" of sauteed onions, chili, ginger and tomatoes. The problem with my plan was that I didn't know where to find paneer in its pre-block form (other than my mom's kitchen). I decided the closest substitution would be ricotta and I would just use that instead. 

I was running the idea by my mom when she suggested I just make it myself. "Mom, I don't know how to make paneer. And I don't want to spend hours doing it." She told me it was easy to do, but I didn't believe her until I actually tried it. Apparently, making paneer is a cinch. Well, the first step is at least. Turning the ricotta-like paneer into the cubes we're used to seeing in most dishes involves a few more steps -involving cheesecloth, weighing it down, and possible frying. All of that is left for another day's lesson. 

Most of you are probably used to paneer that comes in a big block from the grocery store, but it doesn't start off that way. For the purposes of my turnovers, I wanted the cheese in its pre-block form. 

1. Pour one gallon milk into a large heavy bottomed pot. I happened to use 2% milk, but you can also use whole milk.
2. Bring to a boil. Just as milk starts to boil, slowly add the lemon juice. You will immediately see the milk begin to curdle. Reduce the heat to medium.
3. Using a ladle, stir the milk gently. You will see the curd start to separate from the whey (an almost clear liquid)
4. Allow to cook for another minute or so, then turn off heat.
5. Using a small-holed colander, drain liquid from cheese. (In another post, I'll talk about saving the whey water and using it for other purposes, such as kneading it into dough.)
6. Now you have your cheese, ready to use.

I was truly amazed at how simple this was!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

A Method to My Madness

Roasted Beets w/Soy-Ginger Vinaigrette
One of my girlfriends and I were recently talking about our personal cooking habits -what inspires us, how we go about deciding what to make, the steps we take when making a meal. For dinner parties and other planned events, I'm pretty organized -lists of ingredients, several trips to the store, notebooks with menu ideas, etc. My day to day cooking, on the other hand, is completely different. It's the time I let my creativity flow, a time to experiment, to let my mind wander into unknown territories. Yet, as I thought more about my seemingly hodge-podge way of cooking, I realized there actually is a method to my madness. 
  1. Contemplate Flavors.  I generally start off by spending a few minutes thinking about what basic flavors I'm in the mood for. Think about what you're in the mood to eat --- spicy? sweet? savory? asian? italian?
  2. Scan Ingredients. Next I take a look through the refrigerator/pantry to see what ingredients I have on hand. Do I have spinach that's about to wilt? Cilantro that needs to get used? Cooking without a recipe becomes easy once you start regularly stocking fresh vegetables and herbs. I've made it a habit to shop for fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs over the weekend so I have them on hand for cooking during the week. I also like to keep certain standards in my pantry -like broth, tomato paste, pasta. Even though fresh is always best, there are certain shortcuts that just make life easier.
  3. Get Inspired. People think because I have a more free-style way of cooking, that I do it all on my own. I don't. I watch cooking shows. I love cookbooks and have subscriptions to food magazines. I spend hours flipping through the beautiful pictures and reading different recipes. I use them to inspire. Next time you want to make something, browse through different recipes; don't feel limited if you don't have all the ingredients. If you see a recipe that calls for cilantro, but only have fresh parsley -substitute it. It calls for chicken, but you only have fish. That's okay. You might just discover that what you end up creating is even better than the original. 
  4. Be daring! Think outside the box. Let go of the thought that you have to have a recipe to cook. I know some of you may think, "That's ridiculous. How can I cook without a list of ingredients?" That's just fear talking. Fear of being imperfect, of letting go of old habits, of allowing your inner creativity to flow. If I didn't allow myself to experiment, I probably wouldn't make most of what I cook.  Take beets, for example. I found myself preparing them the same way -plain, roasted with some olive oil -over and over. I never associated them with asian flavors, until one day when I just decided to try it out. I roasted them and topped them with a soy-ginger vinaigrette (above picture) and I ended up loving it. I do the same with leftovers, often combining ingredients I would never have thought would go together, ending up in a delicious fusion of flavors. (see below)
  5. Enjoy! Sit down, pour yourself a glass of wine, and ENJOY... it's tempting in this busy world of ours to just eat standing at the kitchen counter, but that's no way to enjoy a meal you've just poured your heart into. Sit down for a few minutes. Relax. Savor it. 

Leftover basmati rice and sauteed ginger asparagus. Add a fried egg and shredded parmesan...and voila, dinner.