Mattar paneer: recipe

It’s funny how many variations there are of this simple indian vegetarian favourite, a mixture of fried paneer cheese, peas and tomatoes with spices. I found three totally different recipes just in the books I received at Christmas! It all gets a bit confusing when you are wondering which to try or what might work best.

I’ve made mattar paneer for years and the first recipe (and still my favourite) I ever used was designer Jocasta Innes’s version published in The Sunday Times Complete Cook Book edited by Arabella Boxer. Published in 1983 it was one of the first recipe books I was ever given ( at the tender age of 17) and it remains often used and a firm favourite (although I do sometimes tinker with the recipes and add or substitute things) as you can see by the picture of my slightly grubby and well-thumbed original.

As I made this the other night I also had Niamh Shields version in Comfort & Spice open at the same time…just to compare her Muttar Paneer recipe with my favourite.

One thing I liked about Shields instructions for making paneer cheese was her ability to make it sound very simple, which it really is.  Innes’s recipe tells you to start making it two days in advance, but you don’t have to and over time I realised this, having experimented with the process myself. Shields obviously discovered the same as she tells her readers, it can all be done in an hour.

The rest of Jocasta Innes’s recipe has stayed with me, although I have modified the process a little. It was a favourite when I was vegetarian and has become a family favourite now.

Jocasta Innes...back in the 80's...designer and bohemian, author of lots of cooking on a budget books

For the paneer:

2 and a half litres full cream milk (it must be full cream don’t try it with low-fat), juice of one lemon.

A large piece of clean muslin

Although Innes also added a small tub of natural yogurt this isn’t totally necessary, it worked just as well with just the lemon juice.

Put the milk in a large pan and bring to the boil. Remove from the heat and stir in the lemon juice. It doesn’t take long for the curds to separate from the whey. Put a colander over a large bowl and line it with the muslin then pour in the curds and whey. Save the whey as you will need some of it later on. The muslin can then be tied up around the curds and then tied around a kitchen tap to continue draining. Leave to drain in this way for about half to three-quarters of an hour. Then fold the muslin around the cheese, put back in the colander and put a plate on top with something heavy. Press flat for half an hour. When you unwrap you will be left with a perfect pat of cheese.

For the mattar:

2 red or white onions finely chopped, 2 large cloves of garlic, a thumb sized piece of ginger, peeled, 1 teaspoon turmeric, 2 teaspoons coriander seeds, 1 heaped teaspoon cumin seeds, 1 green chilli finely chopped, a tin of chopped tomatoes, 250g frozen peas (or fresh if they are in season) , vegetable oil, pinch of sugar.

In a pestle and mortar (or spice grinder) grind the coriander, cumin and a pinch of sea salt. Add roughly chopped garlic and ginger and chilli and pulverize until you have a think paste, add turmeric and mix that in with a small tea-cup of the reserved whey. You should have a think paste/base to the sauce.

Heat the vegetable oil in a large pan and add the chopped onion. Fry gently until soft but not brown. Add spice paste and cook for a  minute or two to release the aroma of the spices stirring so it doesn’t stick. Add another tea-cup of whey and the tinned tomatoes and bring to the boil. We like plenty of sauce so if it looks as though it may become too dry add another cup of whey.

Simmer for about 5 to 10 minutes then add the peas, a pinch of sugar and another cup of why if needed. Simmer for another 5 to 10 minutes. At this point you can take off the heat until the cheese is ready.

Heat vegetable oil in a heavy pan and when sizzling add the cubes of paneer cheese. Fry until golden brown turning with a slotted spoon. You may need to do this in two batches.

Once cooked add to the mattar mixture and return to the heat. Again if it looks dry add another cup full of whey. Stir and simmer for another 10 minutes so that the cheese (which is naturally quite bland) absorbs some of the spice flavours in the dish. Check the seasoning and serve.

Both Jocasta and Niamh serve their dish with a simple salad. I usually throw together some cucumber, tomato, red onion and peppers ( dressed with some lemon, ginger and garlic) and warm some indian bread or if you prefer you can cook some basmati rice with turmeric, saffron, some lemon and a spoonful of ghee or butter. Enjoy!

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