You may as well roll your eyes and wonder if it is possible for anyone in India, from North to South, and from East to West, to not have a family-favourite recipe for mutter paneer. Heck, by now, half of America and the UK must have a house recipe they swear by. But not so yours truly. Believe you me, barring the rather successful attempt last month, I cannot remember when I cooked mutter paneer last. It used to turn out so bleh that I stopped trying, turning instead to tchaman kaliya that has the added benefit of combining better with rice – the carb of my choice.
As you already know, the rest of the resident family is partial to roti. It is my considered opinion that Kashmiri dishes lose half their charm when not served with rice. The pros and cons of all this is that paneer is served on our plates only occasionally.
With the winter vegetables starting to look poor reflections of themselves by late spring, I picked up a packet of paneer instead from the friendly neighbourhood Mother Dairy Fruit and Vegetable store last month. And, keeping the roti-eaters in mind I decided to take a stab at mutter paneer again. Very deliberately I set about changing a few things in my recipe in the hope of getting something respectable at the end.
I didn’t think I could either drop or add a new ingredient. It is my guess that sometimes Punjabi cuisine gets confused with Mughlai and cooks create an ingredient list that stretches long and may even include nuts – cashews in particular. Such recipes are usually also generous in their use of butter or cream seemingly celebrating the origins of a dish in a community known for their love of milk and its products. However, I do not recall the food our Punjabi neighbours shared with us being particularly rich or heavy. My food memories, incidentally, are very sharp.
This meant, in trying to improve my dish I was not going to add cashew paste, malai (cream), or butter. One change I made was grating the onions and tomatoes instead of chopping them. The other small difference was the addition of a pinch of sugar while sauteing the onions. I’m surprised I did this for a dish that already had so many sweet ingredients -onions, sweet peas, and paneer. The list of spices stayed the same – cumin for tempering, and coriander, turmeric, and red chili powder, the standard trinity of spices that I add to most of the food that makes up my Punjabi repertoire. I am not sure if I used to add garam masala in this earlier or not; likely not, since it a spice blend I use sparingly and in only a few dishes. In this trial I decided I would add a little bit. As luck would have it, I was out of garam masala. I was not inclined to make a whole batch just then and pounded the requisite spices in the mortar and pestle to yield a little more than half a teaspoon of freshly ground masala.
I don’t know whether it was a great bunch of sweet peas, or it was the freshly ground spices, or that scant pinch of sugar that made the difference, or that the proportion of the trinity of the usual spices was in perfect balance which gave me the dish I was hoping for. Or, maybe, just maybe, it was always this good but I was partial to Kashmiri cuisine. 😉
In other thing that have changed is that I’ve started making better use of my smart phone. Instead of using scraps of paper to write down the ingredients, now I use ‘Notes’ on the phone! When I tested the recipe this week, it was readily accessible, with the exact quantity of ingredients used and the steps clearly written down. This time I used my ready Punjabi garam masala and the result was consistent. Of course, the garam masala was a fresh batch. If you are not sure about the freshness of your spices I suggest you do what I’d done – grind a few spices in your mortar and pestle.
Try my recipe for mutter paneer if you don’t already have a favourite one. Or, if you are looking for a change.
Peas with Paneer
2 medium onions, grated
2 medium tomatoes, grated (discard the skin)
1 t grated ginger
1/2 t cumin seeds
3/4 t hot chili powder
3/4 t Kashmiri chili powder
2 1/2 t coriander powder
1/2-3/4 t fresh garam masala (or grind together a small piece of cassia bark, 2 cloves, a few peppercorns, half a black cardamom, a green cardamom, and a pinch of mace)
pinch of sugar
5 t peanut oil
750gms fresh pea-pods, about 2C+ shelled (or frozen)
fresh coriander, chopped
Smear a teaspoon oil on a cast iron skillet and heat it on high. When hot add cubed paneer (in batches if using a small pan) and sear on all sides till lightly browned. It takes only a few seconds for paneer to go from golden brown to charred on a hot pan so give full attention to the job at hand. Remove to a bowl filled with a cup of hot water and let soak. You need not add any more oil even if all the oil is soaked up by the first batch.
Heat the remaining oil in the pan of your pressure cooker. Add cumin. Once the cumin splutters, add grated onions and ginger. Saute on medium heat till the paste starts leaving the sides of the pan and the onions are light brown (adding a pinch each of sugar and salt half way through), about 10 minutes. Add tomatoes and continue to cook on medium heat stirring occasionally to prevent the contents from scorching. Saute till the paste is no longer sticking to the sides and has browned a little. [This is the till-the-oil-separates stage but there isn’t much oil in the recipe for it to float.] Add the dry masalas and stir till fragrant. Add a tablespoon of chopped fresh coriander and stir. Add paneer with its soaking water to the pan. Add peas (frozen peas may be added without thawing). Season with salt. Add more water if needed. The final dish should not be soupy but be a thick curry. Close the lid of the pressure cooker and cook on medium heat for 3-4 whistles, about 10 minutes. Wait for the pressure to subside. Open the lid and add a generous amount of fresh coriander leaves and mix. Serve with rotis.
* I find that these packaged brands of paneer are well drained, almost dry. They fry very quickly because there is no liquid to evaporate. They also absorb a lot of liquid and more than double in size when soaked. If you are using paneer from a vendor who stores it soaked in water, you will need to buy more to compensate for the weight of water. For the same reason, you might also want to cut bigger cubes because this paneer may not swell much.