Stovetop: Scratch Mattar Paneer, Spiced Peas with Homemade Cheese or Tofu

May 10, 2012

Most Hindu Indian families - if they eat meat in the first place - allocate one day in the week a 'no meat' day. Typically a Monday or Tuesday, this day is also dedicated to a Hindu deity, maybe Lord Shiva, Vishnu, or the great monkey God Hanuman. Regardless, the meat is swapped out for another protein, usually paneer, or homemade cheese. Keep in mind, although about 30 percent of Indians are vegetarian, the concept of giving up dairy and going Vegan is a new one.

My mother tended to blur the lines of this 'give up' day and expand it to include 'no junk food' or 'no tv' - likely because in our house meat was rarely made and/or served. In my husband's home, where it was more commonly made and eaten, this day of sacrifice was singularly devoted to paneer.  Early in the week, his father would trudge to the grocery store, purchase gallon after gallon of whole milk (which became skim over the years) for my mother-in-law to boil with lemon, yogurt, or buttermilk to form a cheesy layer on top. This layer was then skimmed, drained, and cubed into Tuesday's mattar paneer, or spiced peas and paneer.

When I got married and moved to Chicago from Philadelphia, I was treated to this family delicacy every Tuesday. Although we lived downtown, my husband would eagerly set up our work schedules to include dinner at his parent's west suburban home every Tuesday. And every Tuesday, it would be the same menu: Mattar Paneer with basmati rice on the side for me and roti for everyone else.

I must admit, it was pure heaven. I could never imagine duplicating the taste of that mattar paneer, nor for that matter the taste of my mother's. Precisely why it took years for me to actually attempt making it at home myself. It didn't help that the few times I tried, I failed miserably. Either the paneer just didn't set properly, or the broth for the peas and cheese was either over spiced, too heavy on the tomatoes, or just not perfectly balanced like those that I've tasted before me.

But, I didn't give up. I finally managed to get the elements just right. And, I even managed to Veganize it for my next book, Vegan Indian Cooking (Pre-Order your copy now). Now, mind you. My husband will NEVER eat mattar paneer with tofu, but coming from me - someone who loves tofu and tends to be allergic to dairy, the tofu swap out is well worth a try.

I can't tell much of a difference - but also can't blame my husband for spotting a 'paneer' fraud on the first bite after all the years eating it week after week. Hopefully the recipe below will satisfy both the Vegan and non-Vegan in you. And yes, you can make your own paneer - I teach folks how to do so through recipes in my books and classes, but that lesson will come in future blog updates. I think it's worth a post all on its own.

Mattar Paneer - Spiced Peas with Homemade Cheese or Tofu
Groceries you'll need:
Oil (Grapeseed/Canola/Vegetable/Ghee), onion, ginger, garlic, tomatoes, green chile peppers (Thai or serrano),  tomato paste, cilantro, paneer (found at most grocery stores) or organic, extra-firm tofu, peas (fresh or frozen).

Spices you'll need:  Cumin seeds, turmeric powder, cinnamon stick, black cardamom pod, garam masala, ground coriander, red chile powder or cayenne, coarse sea salt.

2 tablespoons oil
1 heaping teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon turmeric powder
1 2-inch cinnamon stick
1 black cardamom pod
1 large yellow or red onion, peeled and minced
1 2-inch piece ginger root, peeled and grated or minced
6-8 cloves garlic, peeled and grated or minced
2 medium tomatoes, peeled and diced
3 tablespoons tomato paste
2-4 green Thai, serrano, or cayenne chiles, stems removed, chopped
3 cups water, divided
1 heaping teaspoon garam masala
1 heaping teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon red chile powder or cayenne
2 teaspoons coarse sea salt
1 pound fresh or frozen peas (16-oz. bag)
1 14-oz. package of paneer cubed or extra-firm organic tofu (baked first)*
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro, for garnish

1. In a large, heavy pan, heat the oil over medium-high heat.
2. Add the cumin, turmeric, cinnamon, and cardamom and cook until the seeds sizzle, about 30 seconds.
3. Add the onion and cook until browned, about 3 minutes, stirring occasionally.
4. Add the ginger root and garlic. Cook for another minute, stirring to avoid sticking.
5. Add the tomatoes, tomato paste, chiles, 1 cup of water, garam masala, coriander, red chile powder, and salt, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer uncovered for 10 minutes.
6. Remove and discard the cinnamon stick and cardamom. Blend the mixture, either using an immersion blender or by transferring to a blender or food processor. (This step is not necessary, but it adds smoothness to your final dish.)
7. Add the peas, paneer or baked tofu cubes, and remaining 2 cups water. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and cook for 10 minutes uncovered.
8. Garnish with the cilantro. Serve with roti, naan, white or brown basmati rice.

* Baking tofu makes all the difference when trying to sub it for paneer in an Indian curry. It's very simple to do. You can even do a bunch at one time, cube it and store it in the fridge or freezer for use later. Simply take your tofu and slice it into 1/2-inch thick strips. Lay the strips out on an oiled or non-stick baking sheet and lightly spray the top with oil again. Bake at 350 degrees F for 30 minutes, flipping in between. Cube it once you pull it out of the oven and allow it to cool. I have cooked the tofu for even longer and like the consistency even more. You be the judge.



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