India part 2, Paneer


BELOVED, THE WHEYS OF MILK AND ROSES

Homemade cheese or paneer is daunting for a novice. We will take it a step further into making our own cheese curd. Dairy is very prominent in Indian cuisines. Making the curd evolved from the very simple technique of stirring lemon juice into boiling milk. India, Bengal/Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, South Asian, Latin, Germanic and Mediterranean all make cheese curd. We are most familiar with fresh mozzarella, dry feta and Mexican queso fresco, i.e. fresh cheese. So, paneer in rose/orange blossom water for sweet or as savory cheese with salt and herbs, either way it is a pleasure.

I always bought the curd for buffalo mozzarella (moist, soft) and burrata, a mozzarella with cream center then folded in wheat grass, lotus leaf or banana leaf. For mozzarella cook the curd in 180 degree salted water and then quickly fold it into SOFT not chewy balls or logs and then cool. This method of making fresh mozzarella is a process taught in the early years of a true apprenticeship to become a Chef. Being a Chef is a lifestyle and profession. What one learns in the Classic style of apprenticeship requires 6 to 10 years of full time devotion to learning at least five cuisines and mastering one.. Speaking the language of the kitchen and knowing recipes is just the tip of the spoon. Learning, absorbing and applying is what separates dogma from beautiful actuality. Here, we seek the perfection of homemade. Not all learn how to make their own curd.

I dedicate today to my life long inspiration, friend and beloved, Melanie Paulk. She frequently travels to India, is a yoga instructor and has a yoga studio retreat in Utah. Our march into the world of spices, pulses, breads and heat is a search as ancient as the Silk Road and near as the travels of Columbus. As example, Pulse is a word in Escoffier’s La Culinaire as well as post-British occupied India. It refers to dried beans or legumes including fava, mung beans, chick peas, pigeon peas, split peas, black eyed peas, lima beans, crowder peas, cranberry beans, navy beans, red beans, etc. Learn the language of the Indian kitchen, then learn the dishes. In research and travel we find there are things quite similar between culinary cultures. Then there are those things that seem like they are from another world, which in some cases is close to social fact.

 

The only time I have seen fresh cheese curd made in TV-land (a place where few beyond Alton Brown and Mario Batali tell the truth.) was on Japanese Iron Chef. The Chef  was the inimitable Chen Kenichi of Sichuan fame. He separated the curds and whey, drained, wrapped in four folded cheese cloth and worked it into a viable soft crumble cheese. I was intrigued.

Making paneer required several readings in 7 different books. Days in the kitchen. Preparing “instant” (hah!) from the package, dining out, eating ready made styles and going it alone prepared me to stand as a chef of ancient kitchens. Yogurt cheese, dehin, is made by combining Greek yogurt with sea salt, wrapping in cheesecloth, draining for an hour and sealing in an airtight container overnight in the refrigerator. These are on a level with Neufchatel and cream cheese.

In Athens we have Taj Mahal and Fooks, both on Baxter Street, offering everything and more of Indian and Asian ingredients. Buying Asian, Indian and Latin ingredients is very easy today. Purchase what you need in small quantities for exactly what you need in any individual dish. Karen at Fooks will answer all questions, plus she carries my cookbook (A Romance With Food: Ginger, Lily & Sweet Fire).

Things like asafoetida, mango powder, pomegranate seeds and black cardamom pods for the next column sound like they are impossible, but on the contrary they were only 15 minutes away. As example, asafoetida made me shut a cookbook once and walk away. It is made by powdering the gum of a plant also known as giant fennel and has the slight flavor of leeks. When combined with gum Arabic (A powder made from a scrub brush grown in desert regions, is also used in Altoids.) is used in baking and making savory fresh cheese. It is also good for digestion and is prominent in Hindustan foods. Do not be afraid of what is new to you. Worcestershire is made from Asian fruit tree pod, tamarind. “New” is just a word away from the familiar. It is easier to say “you are what you eat” than it is to understand that “you are what you eat, eats” and their origins. I am sure the hunter gatherers made fun of the first farmers (An age old conflict).

Madhur Jaffery’s books are excellent introductions to Indian cuisines. “The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking” by Yamuna Devi is indispensible, and is perhaps the most definitive of vegetarian cooking. “Cooking At Home With Pedathia” on Andhra style South Indian cooking is a graceful look into home cooking. “Bengali Cooking” by Chitrita Banerji opened gates to the river kingdom. One of the books on Punjab cooking that was easy for me was “Menus and Memories From Punjab” by Veronica Rani Sidhu. She married a Punjab doctor that she met while in college in Michigan. He thought that the Hungarian meal of cucumber in sour cream and chicken paprikosh that her Mother made was a Punjab style meal to impress him! She never told him otherwise.  The world of love and cuisine uniting cultures is not just anecdotal , it is a reality.

 

PANEER

Time to make the cheese! Prep time is in two 15 minute sections, setting time is 3 hours and resting time is 8 hours. You will need a deep, stainless steel 6 to 8 quart pot, cheesecloth (a must for any kitchen) or damp handkerchief, yarn, slotted spoon, broad kitchen spoon, colander or strainer, milk and lemon juice. Seriously, the first stage is that minimalist. Follow directions exactly, the research is done so now for the easy part. Use the curd for the cheese, the whey is the liquid part of the dairy. You can keep reusing the whey each time you make cheese by adding the reserved whey to each preparation.  Fresh cheese is very easy, BUT you must be completely sanitary and precise. It may seem detailed but in reality it is simply a set of precise motions that become second nature, like making Southern biscuits, yeast rolls and cinnamon buns. 32 ounces milk ($2)makes 8 ounces fresh cheese ($12 in store). Use ONLY whole milk, skim and low fat will not make proper curd.

 MAKING THE CHEESE CURD

8 cups whole milk, anything less will not work

1 1/2 tablespoons each lemon juice, lime juice

In deep, heavy bottomed pot heat milk on medium to scald temperature or of 180 degrees. Slowly move the large spoon back and forth in the pot. As milk begins to foam add the juice one tablespoon at a time (10 minutes). Immediately remove from the heat and continue to move the spoon. You will see the curds and whey separate. The whey is watery and greenish yellow. Cover and let cool for 10 minutes.

The separation will be noticeable. Fold the cheesecloth into four layers and set it inside of the colander. Leave enough room to tie the cloth around the curd. Use a flat spider spoon or slotted spoon and lift the curd out of the pan. Place curd in cheesecloth. Save the whey for next time to use as the active acid solution.

Hold the curd bundle under warm water for 10 seconds to rinse off any whey. Gently squeeze the cloth around the curd to release any remaining liquid/moisture.

Drain for ten minutes. Place curd bundle on cutting board and roll it around to shape into a block or cylinder shape. Roll into shape in cloth. Drain for 3 hours.

After 3 hours unwrap the cheese and set on cutting board. Line plastic wrap with paper towels and roll the cheese into a cylinder shape. Refrigerate overnight.

SAVORY

Combine cheese curd with ½ teaspoon salt and 8th teaspoon rice vinegar. Press cheese over and over until it is soft and smooth. Shape into small discs.

SAUTE

1 tablespoon clarified butter or ghee

Heat on very low for 30 seconds each side. Remove and drain. Use for bruschetta, tomato sandwiches, for spicy bean dishes, light snack.

SWEET

1 tablespoon orange blossom water

3 tablespoons jaggery, date palm sugar, turbinado or light bright sugar

8 ounces water

If you want to color the cheese mix food color in bowl and hand press dye and cheese until soft and consistent. Shape cheese into small balls. Poach temperature is 150 degrees. Remove, drain and arrange on plates or serving trays. Sprinkle powdered sugar, cinnamon, allspice or cardamom for extra flavor.

Fresh cheese can also be used for dip, sandwiches, bruschetta and for adding to cooked pulses/beans/dhal. Eat with assorted breads, fruits, cured meats, olive oil and fruit vinegars. That was fun, wasn’t it? Please give fresh cheese making a go of it, you will be amazed and surprised at how much you can do with either paneer or dehin. Fresh cheese is for all cultures. Be warm, kind and loving.

Waking up from late summer hibernation,

Smile, she moves a little closer,

Seems the leaves have all dried up

And the yard is covered in sweet gum grenades,

Too hot to barbecue, fish or garden.

Song choices on the stereo are Blues fixed

And full of Southern hollers, songs of

No work dustbowl days in the 1930s.

Doc Boggs: “used to be a rambler,

Courting Pretty Polly, her beauty

Never been found…there she stands,

So come take a walk with me.”

And I feel the same way, we have our own

Burning long dog days, looking for my

Pretty Polly and sweet cornbread, ha!

A plate to fill and a life to sing,

Looking for a way to make the nights cooler,

To fill them all with food, art

And this world that I call love.

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