Sunday, May 31, 2015

Paneer Tikka Masala - Vegetarian favorite from restaurants reconstructed at home

Disclaimer: Long chitchat and longer recipe :-), read at your convenience risk:-)
Claimer(Is that a word?): You really don't want to miss this recipe if you are a fan of paneer dishes :-))

I blink, it is the beginning of a new week, next time I blink I am already into the weekend, or so it seems. Memorial day came and went, the long weekend was filled with a flurry of activities. With 2 little girls grown up(almost) and heading out to a new phase of life at colleges of their choice, a little kid who has turned into a dashing young man on the threshold of entering married life, as a family we couldn't ask for more. Exciting, happy and busy times all around. I am looking forward to finishing up next work week and heading out for the short vacation to celebrate our nephew's wedding. India, here we come :-).

I don't know about you but I block all craving for home until I know for sure there is a trip close by but as I near the timeline, it gets tougher and tougher not to think, dream about home, family and everything else :-(. I am right now in that phase where every waking moment (and ofcourse the sleepy moments) is flooded with thoughts about meeting everyone back home in a week. Keeping in tune with the thoughts, I am feverishly cooking loads of Indian food, more than my usual and being light headed as I am now, all my caution for health(ier) food goes out the window :-). Indulgence is the mantra for now. Here is one such recipe, rich in flavor, taste, colors..
I have a friend at work who bakes delicious food and is a foodie like me. We sometimes bring dishes to work, exchange recipes and all that. She loves Indian food and recently went to a restaurant in town and was raving about the chicken tikka masala she had and wanted the recipe to try at home. Being a vegetarian, I told her that I would get her a good tikka masala recipe soon and she could replace the veggies with her choice of meat. Indian cuisine has crossed borders, broken barriers and reached remotest parts of the globe that would have been unimaginable a generation or so back. While major credit goes to enterprising Gujjus, Panjabis, Udupi chefs, there is something unmistakable in the cuisine itself that seems to give it the sustainability to stand unbroken in unfamiliar settings and the adaptability to morph while retaining its heart & soul.
Recently I read an article of a study by chemists from IIT, Jodhpur that put a mathematical formula on why Indian food is so delicious. Apparently Indian cuisine in stark contrast to most other cuisines in the world, combines ingredients that do not have any overlapping flavors. The recipes mix these ingredients, retain their individuality and hence produce a burst of flavor when tasted. You can read the article here if you are interested. Today's recipe is a proof of coming together of complex flavors, coexisting to make a tasty dish. There is the tang of yogurt, bitterness of roasted fenugreek leaves, smokeyness of the hot mustard oil - seemingly incompatible but work their magic in the pot.

When my search for a good great tikka masala recipe began I literally found thousands of them all over the blogosphere. Some looked authentic, some claimed authenticity. I was looking to get a delicious taste without the dish being laden with butter. I use my oven generously for many of the Indian dishes but I also completely understand it is not a replacement for a tandoor so most dishes cook to perfection sans the smokey flavor that the tandoor imparts. Though many of the recipes online looked appetizing I finally zeroed in on this from celebrity chef Harpal Singh Sokhi. This one is for you M and thank you for nudging me towards trying this recipe, it is a keeper.
The truth of it all is there is no one dish or recipe that can be termed 'Indian' and expect to see it being eaten all over India. The flavors, preparation, ingredients keep varying as you move from region to region within India. Granted there are similarities and the underlying principles (Ex: eat khichdi/pongal in the winter because it has black pepper that keeps the body warm) are same because of the age old wisdom, but you will not find an authentic paneer masala in a South Indian home as you will not find the variety of dosas in a Punjabi home. For me, this variety is what makes life and Indian food interesting :-). I cannot vouch for the authenticity of this recipe, I will leave it to my good Punjabi friends but I can definitely vouch for the 'can't have enough' taste of this dish.

What stands out in this recipe is the usage of mustard oil which really brings in the smokey flavor in this recipe. I did a major cut on the heavy ingredients (butter & cream) and a few other tweaks to suit our palates yet the dish turns out super mouth watering. I used the left over marinade in the sauce which made it more delicious and also added a little bit of roasted gram flour to the marinade which I think added to the nutty flavor overall. Mustard oil is not something I use regularly but had a little bit left over from the avakkaya amma made earlier in Spring. If you do not have mustard oil in your pantry, please head out to your nearest store that has mustard oil and buy a bottle of it. It is totally worth the effort and you will be glad you took the extra effort. Go ahead and use butter & cream if you'd like, this is a really yummy dish as is and doesn't need (according to me :-)) any further enhancements.
While paneer is the most favorite of things for DD & BH, I don't personally enjoy it so much, just a personal peeve with the texture. I know lot of my Indian and non Indian friends will look at me as if I was a weird species but when it comes to food, each to her (or his) own. Enjoy what you like.  I added whole lot of paneer in the recipe for the rest of the family at the same time added a bunch of veggies too so I could enjoy the flavors. The only problem with this deliciousness is that the family wasn't very thrilled to wait until the masala was done and we added the grilled veggies in it as they were eager to eat the paneer tikka (without the masala) as it was like appetizers. The marinated veggies and paneer taste absolutely yummy without the gravy too. So if you are looking for popular finger food for a party, here you go..
This recipe is a little time consuming unless you follow the pattern, get things ready in advance and cook simultaneously. I have tried to separate ingredients and the method so it is easier to consume and execute. Hope this helps.

What do you need to make Paneer Tikka Masala? 
For the Tikka: 
3 cups cubed fresh paneer (I used a 12oz packet)
1 cup cubed onions (I prefer red onions)
1 large tomato (use a fleshy variety)
1 green bell pepper (or use other colors if you like)
2-3 Tbsp oil to shallow fry
1 cup yogurt
1/2 Tsp lemon/lime juice
2 Tbsp besan/gram flour
1 Tbsp oil (use butter for a heavier/calorie dense version)
1/4 Tsp ajwain
1 Tsp kasoori methi (dry fenigreek leaves)
1 Tsp red chili powder (adjust to taste)
1/2 Tsp garam masala powder
1 inch piece ginger
2-3 garlic cloves
3/4 Tsp salt (adjust to taste)
1/8 Tsp turmeric powder
2 Tbsp mustard oil ***
Tikka Masala: 
1 large onion
2 large tomatoes
1 inch piece ginger
2-3 garlic cloves
1-2 green chilies
8-10 cashews
1 Tsp kasoori methi
1 Tsp red chili powder (adjust to taste)
1/2 Tsp garam masala powder
2 Tbsp oil
2 Tbsp milk (use cream for a heavier/calorie dense version)
1 Tsp cumin seeds
1 Tsp salt

How do you make Paneer Tikka Masala? 
Preparing veggies & paneer for the Tikka: 
  • Cut paneer into 1X1 inch pieces, keep aside
  • Chop onion into cubes, separate the layers
  • Cut tomato in quarters, reserve the seeds & pulp, cut into pieces.
  • Deseed & cut green bell pepper into cubes
  • Note: Keep the size of all the vegetables roughly the same and a tiny bit bigger than paneer. 
Preparing marinade: 
  • Wash, peel and crush ginger & garlic into a coarse paste using a mortar & pestle or a blender. 
  • Take a large bowl, add yogurt, salt, red chili powder, garam masala powder, kasoori methi crushed, lemon/lime juice, ginger & garlic paste 
  • Whisk it with a spoon or fork until homogeneous. 
  • Heat oil in a pan, add besan & crushed ajwain into it. Roast on medium heat until you get the nutty aroma of besan. DO NOT LET THIS BURN. 
  • Add this to the yogurt mixture. 
  • Heat mustard oil in a pan until it starts to smoke, switch off & add turmeric powder. 
  • Pour this over the yogurt mixture and give a good mix until everything blends together. 
  • Important: Taste the marinade at this stage and adjust any spices, salt etc. 
  • First add the bell pepper pieces, and coat them with marinade. Add onions followed by tomatoes and give a swirl so everything is coated. 
  • Finally add paneer pieces and gently mix into the marinade. 
  • Make sure all the pieces have a chance to absorb the flavors from marinade. 
  • Cover the bowl with a cling wrap and let it rest for atleast an hour. 
  • Either shake the bowl or using a spoon, gently mix the ingredients a couple of times to ensure infusion of flavors. 
Grilling vegetables: 
  • After an hour or so of marinade, veggies will be ready to be grilled. There are a couple of ways to grill them - you can do the stove top pan or a grill pan, use the oven or if you have a tandoor, go for it. 
  • Pick a piece of paneer, push the center through a skewer, add a layer of onion, bell pepper and tomato. Keep alternating until the end of the skewer. 
  • Heat your pan or grill pan until the surface is very hot, add a few drops of oil and place the skewer on top. (You should hear a sizzling sound as you place the wet vegetables, don't start with a cold griddle or pan)
  • After a min, rotate the skewers and let the other side get a nice brown coating, repeat on all 4 sides. 
  • If you do not have skewers, just lay the marinated veggies and paneer pieces on the surface of the hot tava and using a gentle hand, keep turning them over until they develop the grill marks and soften up a bit. 
  • Remove skewers from the pan and keep aside. 
  • If you are impatient (like my family was) or are looking for a snack/appetizer, you can start munching on the grilled paneer & veggies at this stage, they taste heavenly delicious.
Preparing Tikka Masala: 
  • Soak cashews in water for 30-45 mins. 
  • Blend cashews into a fine paste with 2 Tbsp milk. Reserve this paste until ready to use. 
  • Finely chop onion and keep aside. 
  • Roughly chop tomatoes and puree them, keep aside. 
  • Crush & make a paste of ginger & garlic. 
  • Heat oil in a heavy bottom pan. 
  • Add cumin and let it sizzle. 
  • Add chopped onion and salt. Let onions brown on medium heat. 
  • Add ginger-garlic paste at this stage and let it cook for a couple of minutes. 
  • Add pureed tomatoes and let it cook for 10-12 minutes on medium-low heat. This is an important step and take it patiently for the best flavor. 
  • Once almost all the liquid has gone and tomatoes & onions look like a paste with oil glistening on the sides, add the cashew paste, increase heat and continuously stir until it gets absorbed into the paste (1-2 mins)
  • Add the dry powders - red chili powder, crushed kasoori methi, garam masala. Mix them in, taste and adjust if needed. 
  • Add any remaining marinade along with 1/2 cup of water to, let it come to a boil. 
  • Add the grilled paneer and vegetables into the gravy, give a gentle stir. 
  • Switch off, serve hot or warm with rotis or naan.
  • Go slow with the onions & tomato cooking for the sauce. This needs to be done in medium heat and until the raw smell and flavors turn into delicious cooked taste. 
  • Be liberal with the use of kasoori methi in the sauce. 
  • Do not discard remaining marinade, its addition in sauce just takes the dish to the next level :-)
  • Add all little charred bits of bell pepper, onion etc scraped off the pan and do not discard. 
  • For the Tikka masala, the vegetables should be cooked just enough so they retain their crunch and not become mushy. 


NamsVeni Pothas said...

very tasty dish. but very long preparations. after the hard work of we get a mouth watering and delicious recipe. we enjoyed it.

Anonymous said...

Yum. So how did you figure out the Mustard oil is making the difference? It's easy to add marinated and grilled chicken for the non-veg version. Will look forward to repeat try out of this 😊

selena gomez said...

That paneer dish looks so amazing. Perfect dish to make on the grill. Will try some time.
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chowringhee said...

Simply awesome and delicious looking Wonderfully prepared.