Since moving to the Bay Area, I have been assailed by a wealth of restaurants from around the globe. The sheer diversity has broadened my horizons, and I have developed a particular love for Indian cuisine. Until recently, the curries, naan, and various appetizers seemed magical, with flavors that could only be the result of long hours on the stovetop (or traditional tandoori ovens). The cuisine hardly seemed designed for easy home cooking. When I stumbled onto a bit more free time and started working from home, however, it struck me as the perfect time to experiment. With help from a timely birthday, I outfitted my kitchen for Indian cooking and went to work.
There are two main barriers for entry into home Indian cooking. First, the ingredients. Indian recipes have famously long ingredient lists, but luckily consist mostly of various spices. Beyond that point, almost all recipes can boil down to an onion, a tomato, and a couple unique components. Much more manageable. More importantly, however, Indian recipes often take a very long time. Most of us don’t have the ability to stay home every afternoon to slow simmer a curry and prepare a bread dough. My solution to this problem consists of one cookbook, Entice with Spice by Shubhra Ramineni. Subtitled “Easy Indian Recipes for Busy People”, many of the recipes in the book have been condensed to take less than 60 minutes from start to finish. I can’t speak highly enough of Ramineni’s dishes, which achieve the magical flavor of restaurant curry from the comfort of your home kitchen.
According to Ramineni, a traditional Indian dinner consists of (at minimum) an appetizer, a salad, yogurt sauce, a bread, rice, a lentil dish, a vegetable dish, a meat or cheese dish, and a dessert. Even on my most elaborate nights I don’t match this feast, and I usually don’t come close. In this post, for example, Ali and I merely prepared two of Ramineni’s appetizers. Paneer with Bell Peppers, meant to be skewered and served as a visually appealing hors d’oeuvre, works just as well tossed together as a side dish. Potato Stuffed Breads, Aloo ka Paratha, stands alone as a breakfast or lunch dish, or serves as excellent accompaniment for a larger ensemble. Together as a dinner the two are hardly traditional, but, well, they still tasted good.
For the cheese:
- 4 cups whole milk
- 1 lime, juiced
I really love cheese. If I did an ingredient-themed food blog, it would almost certainly be centered around different cheese dishes. In Indian restaurants, however, I never gravitate towards paneer. Instead, I focus on the complex chicken and lamb curries. Chicken Tikka Masala has always been, and will always be, my favorite. But making paneer from scratch was irresistible. Here was a chance to really experiment, revisiting lab science from the comfort of home.
A soft cheese, synthesis of paneer is remarkably easy. Add the milk to a large stockpot, and place over high heat. Bring the milk to a full boil, being careful to avoid letting it foam up and out of the pot, and then quickly reduce the heat to medium low. Stirring constantly, add the lime juice. The milk should gradually separate into solid (curds) and liquid (whey) components. If this does not occur within a minute, add another tablespoon of lime juice to the mix. Line a colander with cheesecloth, and filter the mixture to separate the curds from the unwanted whey. I find that a cheesecloth should be folded 3-4 times to form a sufficient barrier.
Let the curds cool and drain for a couple minutes, then bundle the cloth into a pouch and press it against the side of the colander using a large spoon. This should press out most of the excess whey, which can then be discarded. Shape the bundle into a rough rectangle, about an inch thick, and press underneath a weighted plate for at least 30 minutes to fully dry the paneer. Finally, unwrap the block and place it, covered, on a plate in your refrigerator. Chilling for at least an hour will improve the texture and solidity of the paneer. Try to use the finished cheese within a day.
What’s going on with cheese curds?
The chemistry involved in cheese making is pretty crazy. The specific time of year and diet of dairy cows can change the taste of milk or cheese, and the details are beyond me. Fundamentally, however, there are two classes of protein within milk. Whey proteins exist as individual molecules spread throughout the liquid, while casein proteins are grouped together in globular clusters known as micelles. The individual casein strands are held together at one end (the head) by a glue of calcium atoms, and their tails repel one another to prevent aggregation of multiple micelles. When milk curdles this repulsion is eliminated, causing casein proteins to coagulate into a larger mass and form solid curds. The whey proteins remain separate in solution. Most cheeses come from the solid casein curds, but some (like ricotta) are traditionally made from concentration of the liquid whey.
So why do some cheeses, like mozzarella, melt readily atop your pizza while others, like paneer, keep their shape and even harden slightly when heated? Both cheeses are made from casein proteins, and it stands to reason that they would have similar properties. The secret lies in two distinct methods of curdling the milk. When natural enzymes (generally chymosin) are used to curdle milk, the micelles remain intact, and the only change to their structure is to eliminate the repulsive charge that keeps micelles apart in solution. The micelles drift together, forming long chains and solidifying based on relatively weak interactions. When heated, these interactions breaks apart and the cheese melts. Acid curdling, however, generates a very different structure. Acid not only removes the repulsive charges, it also dissolves the calcium atoms which hold the micelle together. Casein strands spread out, and then come together again into a complex network of interlocking strands. This is a much more robust interaction, and the only change upon heating is to shake loose any water molecules within the paneer.
For the bell peppers:
- 1 block paneer
- 3 tbsp. vegetable oil
- 1/2 small onion, grated using the largest side of a box grater
- 1 tomato (any variety), chopped into 4-6 pieces
- 1/4 tsp. cayenne
- 1 tsp. salt
- 1/2 tsp. black pepper
- 1 orange bell pepper, chopped into small squares
- 1 red bell pepper, chopped into small squares
Grating an onion. Wow. This prep can be unpleasant, especially with an overly aromatic onion, but will greatly accelerate your cook time and is definitely worth it. Heat the oil in a skillet over medium heat, and then add the onion. Cook, stirring frequently, until the onion is fully translucent and barely starting to brown. Add the tomato to the pan over medium-low heat, and cover the mixture. Every couple minutes, uncover the skillet and mash the tomato gently, until it resembles a rough paste. This should take around five minutes, and the skins can be pulled out as the tomato dissolves if you wish. Toss in the cayenne plus half the salt and pepper, and cook for an additional 2 minutes to finish the masala spice base.
Once the masala is finished cut the prepared paneer into pieces (I do 16) and add them to the pan. Stir to combine, taking care not to break up the cheese blocks, and then sauté the mixture for a couple minutes, stirring infrequently. Push the cheese mixture to one side of the pan, add the bell peppers, and sprinkle with the remaining salt and pepper. Cook everything for five minutes, continuing to turn the cheese squares occasionally to avoid blackening. The peppers should soften and maybe char slightly while maintaining a nice crunch. When the peppers are cooked, turn off the heat and cover the pan for five minutes. Mix everything together and serve as a side, or thread pieces of cheese and pepper onto skewers for a visually appealing appetizer.
For the breads:
- 1 cup whole wheat flour
- 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup water
- 1 russet potato, boiled and peeled
- 1/2 small onion, diced
- 1 serrano chili, chopped (with or without seeds)
- 1/2 tsp cayenne
- 3/4 tsp salt
- 1/2 tsp black pepper
- 1/4 cup chopped cilantro
Ali and I are on a constant quest to find potato variants that I enjoy. I generally hate the texture, and Ali pulls most of the weight in consuming our weekly allotment of CSA potatoes. I do, however, love bread, and so stumbling across a recipe for Potato Stuffed Breads provided incentive to brave the world of tubers. For this dish, you assemble a basic dough, and then place a mound of potato filling between two rounds and toss it into a skillet. The result is, ideally, a light and fluffy bread layer, just a bit charred, wrapped around a spicy mashed potato filling. Ours didn’t turn out perfectly, but they were still delicious.
To make the dough merely combine the flours and water, and then knead for five minutes. Once you have a uniform mixture, shape the dough into a ball and place it in a lightly wetted bowl. Allow this to rest, covered, for around 30 minutes. Meanwhile, boil and peel the potato for use in the filling. Once the dough has rested, knead for another minute and then divide it into 8 equal sized portions. Coat each lightly with flour to avoid sticking, and roll them into an approximately 5 inch rounds. Set these aside for later use, and proceed to assemble the filling.
In a large bowl, mash the peeled potato until it adopts a uniform texture. Add the remaining ingredients, and then divide the mixture into four equally sized balls. Take two of the dough rounds, and coat one side of each with vegetable oil. Flatten one of the filling portions onto a round, allowing it to expand almost to the edges of the dough, and then cover with the second oiled round. Crimp the dough edges together to form a seal. Don’t worry too much if the dough stretches thin or tears slightly, it will just fry the potato slightly.
To cook the stuffed breads, heat a large cast iron skillet over medium-high heat. Add a prepared round to the skillet and allow it to cook for one minute before carefully flipping the cake. Cook for another minute, and brush vegetable oil lightly over the exposed (cooked) side. Flip again to cook the oiled surface for 30 seconds while oiling the second side. Finally, flip a third time and cook for 30 seconds. In total, each side should have been exposed to heat for 60 seconds pre-oil, and 30 seconds post-oil. When cooking the paratha, I found that high heat tended to char the breads a bit too much, so I have suggested medium to medium-high depending on your stove. Experiment, and let me know what works for you. Fold finished breads in aluminum foil to keep them warm while you finish cooking the rest.