Sunday, November 27, 2016

Shahi Paneer - saying thanks to all the beautiful blessings in life with a royal dish

As I pass the empty room, I stop to look in and assess the damage of 4 days. To my surprise, there are no soiled clothes on the floor, bed is pretty much made and no used cups, plates on the bed side table either. My phone charger that didn't belong to me for the last 4 days has been put back in its rightful place in the study. It reminds me of the countless mom-daughter fights we have had, me telling her to be responsible, keep the room clean and her telling me to either not sweat (when she was in good mood) or telling me to stay off her room (if she was tired). I no longer have to do that nor engage in unnecessary battles with her. Sometimes the very changes you wished for end up being the things you wish had stayed just the way they were for longer :-(. She hugs me before heading out and says, "I will be fine amma!" as if she read my mind. The little girl that was here just a little while ago seems grown up, she no longer gives me a reason to tell her to pick up after her, or be the constant reminder nagging her to do things. I count this to be one of the greatest blessings in my life though I sure wish the baby phase continued on forever..or for a long time atleast :-)

Thanksgiving is behind us already which means there are only a few days left for the rest of the year to come to an end. Feels like I started 2016 only recently :-). The joy of going to the airport to pick her up is already replaced by the melancholy of the house when we return home after dropping her off. She will get busy with school, finals and friends and we will get busy with work and other activities and we both start counting the days until the next break when she would be home. Until then, I reminisce the time we had together this past weekend. The 4 days of holiday was good and all three enjoyed the much awaited time with each other and also get some good rest. Flora heartily joined us for the eats and the snoozes though if you ask me she doesn't need the snooze any more than she already has :-). And food, oh yes there has been plenty in the last days, I cooked more than I had in the past month or so and in the name of feeding the famished college student, the parents also enjoyed some yummy and great food :-), no complaints from anyone.
Thanksgiving is definitely a tradition for us, both interms of the food and what we do (or don't do :-)) during the 4 days. I don't have to plan, don't need to invent anything for the lunch as our menu is set. We do a brunch that lasts us for the entire day and as usual, we had our masala dose, roasted sweet potatoes and cranberry chutney. I made the cranberry chutney in a very typical Andhra pachadi way this time and it tasted delicious and very flavorful. I have a couple variations of the chutney on the blog but if you are interested in this particular version, let me know and I will be happy to post that as well. The masale dose with the potato stuffing and the various chutneys on the side and inside along with roasted sweet potatoes made us feel stuffed for the entire day without needing anything for the most part.
I had got a pie pumpkin with plans of making something with it but just didn't get there. The pumpkin still sits in the corner beckoning me to make something, so look for some new pumpkin recipe on the blog soon if I continue the cooking enthusiasm and feel adventurous than usual (or I might end up falling back on the tried and tested favorites that are already on the blog :-) and won't post anything new). So the morning after Thanksgiving, I wanted to keep it simple, easy and tasty and ended up making this shahi paneer with some of DD's favorite peas pulav. The richness of the shahi paneer complemented perfectly with the simple and toned down peas pulav I had made. We enjoyed it hot and fresh for lunch, warm and well marinated for dinner :-). Yep cook once and eat twice is the mantra especially when there is so many tiny, little, medium and big sized containers already in the refrigerator full of left overs.

Ever since DD grew up to be a college girl, it seems like the parents live for the days between the holiday breaks :-(. I usually ask DD what she wants to eat whenever she is heading home for holidays. She has a bunch of favorite amma made food and is game anyday if I make from that list, but I feel like I make the same dishes every time if I don't plan ahead. Having eaten the dorm food for weeks at length, she is happy to eat anything I make when she is home (a huge change from before she went away to school and used to nitpick every meal :-(). Paneer is one thing she has some access to at school as every time they head out to enjoy some Indian food outside the campus, paneer dishes are always ordered as they are everyone's favorites and also pretty decently made in the places they go to. She loves paneer in most forms and I wanted to make something with it this time since the last two breaks she was home, it never made it to the menu.
Paneer is probably one of the universally loved ingredients especially for people from the Indian sub continent. This humble ingredient finds its way to numerous north Indian dishes and always seems to take them a notch higher than if they were to be devoid of paneer. Personally I am not fond of paneer or any kind of other cheese (! I know, I have had a hard time explaining this to many people in the past), I spoon the gravy liberally when we order a paneer dish while eating at a restaurant leaving the paneer pieces to BH and DD who are happy to gorge on amma's share too. So we don't waste food and it works out for everyone. This is what I do at home as well when I make a paneer dish. If you are looking for some of the favorite recipes with paneer, my versions of the dishes are right here on the blog at palak paneer, paneer butter masala, paneer tikka masala and mutter paneer. A new addition to the paneer family on the blog couln't be anything less than royalty, could it? so here is shahi paneer today. I used help from store bought paneer this time since the days around Thanksgiving were hectic and I didn't have thee time to make it at home.

Shahi is royalty, kingly :-). This dish is made rich with cashews and cream (I cheated a little as usual since we don't need to be that 'shahi' anyways :-)). The texture of the gravy is smooth and silky, the ingredients are ground into a very fine paste before they are combined. This is an easy way out to putting together a resturant grade shahi paneer without toiling infront of a hot stove trying to saute raw onion and tomato paste for a long time until they are well roasted. If you are looking for a short cut without any compromise on the taste, this recipe is for you. I found it originally on a you tube channel by chef Vikas Khanna. Cooking them with spices until soft not only gives you a head start on cook time (you don't have to saute onion & tomato paste until fat oozes out from the side) but also ensures that the aroma from the spices are captured in the gravy and held secure there. Adding honey is the chef's touch, I would have added a spoon of sugar to cut the sourness of tomatoes but honey made perfect sense as it added the sweetness and also aided the silky smoothness of the gravy. This is a perfect accompaniment for a bland rice (such as jeera rice or plain steamed rice) and for roti/naan.
Paneer Trivia: 
Cottage cheese is an easy and understandable term when you are trying to explain paneer to a person whom you are trying to introduce to Indian cuisine. Though cottage cheese and paneer and used interchangeably, they are not the same. The process of paneer making ensures that all the whey is removed by keeping the curdled milk under weight for a couple of hours where as cottage cheese is hung up and retains some whey in it. Also usage of paneer is mostly in cooked dishes while cottage cheese is consumed in its raw form. Paneer is extremely easy to make at home and best consumed within a couple of days of preparation. So how do you explain paneer to a novice (that understands cheese ofcourse?) - it is curdled milk and similar to fresh farmer's cheese :-)

Cheese for vegetarians: 
I was reading a book recently and it had a description of how cheese was made in the pioneer days. I never had paid a lot of attention to the note that said 'no animal rennet' on the paneer packet before but now understand that cheese was made with animal rennet in the olden days and the practice continues today. There are plant based rennet available and if you are a vegan or a vegetarian who would like to avoid animal rennet, you just have to make the choice. A rennet is essentially an enzyme that curdles milk and helps separate into solid curds and liquid whey. Plant based sources of the enzyme include fig leaves, melon, safflower and ofcourse by the fermentation of the fungus.
What do you need to make Shahi Paneer? 
Recipe source: Chef Vikas Khanna
6 Oz paneer (roughly a cup & half of cubed paneer)
5 medium tomatoes (4 cups chopped)
3 medium onion (3 cups chopped)
1 inch piece cinnamon
2-4 cloves (adds to the heat)
1 black cardamom
2 green cardamom
2 byadagi/Kashmiri red chilies (this gives the authentic orange-red color)
10-12 cashews
1 inch piece ginger
2 cloves garlic (skip if you don't like garlic)
1 Tsp salt
1/2 cup milk
1/2 Tsp honey
1/2 Tsp red chili powder (use a mild, bright colored variety like Kashmiri)
1 Tsp kasoori methi
1/4 Tsp garam masala powder
How do you make Shahi paneer?
  • Take a big cooking pot, add chopped tomatoes, onion, cinnamon, cloves, cardamoms, red chilies and cashews into it along with 1 cup of water and 1/2 tsp salt. 
  • Let it cook down covered on medium heat for about 20 mins until tomatoes are mushy and onions are soft. 
  • Switch off and let it cool. 
  • In the meantime, wash, peel ginger and crush it into a fine paste along with garlic.
  • Cut paneer into pieces of desired shape and size and keep aside until ready to use. 
  • Remove the black cardamom (I feel the taste is very pronounced when ground into paste) and take the remaining contents of the pot to a blender and grind into a very smooth paste.
  • Heat a kadai on medium heat, return the ground paste to it along with the ginger-garlic paste and let it start to get a few bubbles on top. 
  • Reduce the heat to low and add milk while stirring the gravy continuously. 
  • Let it cook for another 4-5 mins or until it starts to boil again. 
  • Add the red chili powder, garam masala powder, crushed kasoori methi and salt and mix well. 
  • Adjust the consistency if you desire with additional milk and taste test to adjust any dry powders to your liking. Let the gravy come to a gentle boil. 
  • Add the paneer pieces and mix lightly, let it cook for a minute or so before adding the honey and switching it off. 
  • Cover and let it rest for atleast 15mins before serving it. 
Notes: 
  • Make sure you get the paneer out of the freezer a few hours before you need to use it in the recipe especially if it is store bought. The block needs to be soft enough to cut into pieces or you will end up fighting with it and breaking it into crumbs. 
  • Bring milk to room temperature or warm it for a few seconds before adding to the gravy. The tomatoes in the gravy can curdle if you add refrigerated milk directly to the hot gravy. 
  • This is a thick, creamy gravy, do not add a lot of water (one cup used while boiling the tomatoes and the milk provide sufficient quantity of liquid). 
  • The flavor of cardamom is very pronounced when you first start the gravy (also the reason but mellows down after the addition of spice powders, milk etc.