Have you ever made your own cheese? I made some ricotta last year, and wanted to try my hand at paneer. Fresh cheeses like paneer and ricotta are easy to make at home, and totally worth it. All you need is milk, a lemon, some cheesecloth, and a little patience.
Saag paneer has been my favorite Indian dish for years, and I'm so glad I finally made it myself. The creamy spiced spinach studded with chewy bits of paneer is totally addictive, and my major Indian takeout/delivery habit is all saag paneer's fault (oh, and Eat24--you guys didn't help, either). This homemade version is just as good as my local restaurant's, and the paneer is far superior: it's meltingly tender, with a wonderfully creamy flavor. It's a little labor intensive to make the paneer and the saag on the same day, but it was a perfect project for a Sunday afternoon. Next time I might try making a big batch of paneer, stashing some in the fridge, and freezing the rest. That way I can make saag paneer happen on weeknights!
In case you find the idea of cheese-making intimidating, here are some step-by-step pictures to help demystify things. You'll be an accomplished cheesemonger in no time!
Bring the milk to a boil, then stir in the lemon juice. The curdled mixture will look like this (sorry for the terrible phone picture).
Pour it into a cheesecloth-lined sieve over a big bowl, and wait for it to drain.
When most of the whey has drained out, make an adorable cheesecloth bundle, and put it on a plate.
Stick some heavy things on top, and wait for an hour or so.
Carefully unwrap the cheese...
...and slice it into cubes!
Fry the paneer until golden in a little ghee. You could really just stop there and chow down, but saag paneer is awesome, so try one piece and then carry on with the rest of the recipe!
If I still haven't convinced you to take up cheese-making, you can also buy frozen paneer at some grocery stores and Indian markets. I've used store-bought paneer that was already pan-fried, but I think you can also buy it in block form and slice and fry it yourself.
Yield: 3-4 servings
Prep time: 1 hour 30 minutes, mostly inactive
Cook time: 1 hour
Total time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
For the paneer (adapted from Veg Recipes of India):
6 cups whole milk
2-3 tablespoons fresh-squeezed lemon juice
3 tablespoons ghee
For the saag (adapted from 660 Curries by Raghavan Iyer):
1 (16-ounce) package frozen chopped spinach
1 red onion, chopped
6 cloves garlic, chopped
3-inch piece of ginger, chopped
2 and 1/2 teaspoons garam masala, or more to taste (available on Amazon, or make your own), divided
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
Pinch or two of cayenne, optional, for a spicier dish
2 tablespoons tomato paste
3/4 cup water
1 and 1/2 teaspoons coarse sea salt.
1/2-3/4 cup heavy cream, to taste
Chopped fresh cilantro, for serving
To make the paneer, line a strainer with cheesecloth and place it over a large heatproof bowl. Heat the milk in a medium saucepan over high heat, stirring occasionally, until it comes to a boil and starts to rise up in the pan. Add the lemon juice, starting with two tablespoons, and stir. If the milk does not separate into curds and whey, add the remaining lemon juice. Once the mixture has curdled, carefully pour it into the cheesecloth-lined strainer and allow to drain for 15 minutes or so.
Pick up the edges of the cheesecloth and bring them together, forming a bundle with the cheese inside. This should help squeeze some more liquid out. I discarded the whey, although some people use it for cooking other things. Place the cheese bundle on a large plate, and weight it with something nice and heavy (as you can see, I used a cast-iron skillet with two cans inside). Let the paneer sit for an hour or two.
Unwrap the paneer carefully, and slice into one-inch cubes. When you are ready to fry the paneer, heat the ghee in a heavy skillet over medium heat. When it's hot, add the paneer and cook until golden brown on the bottom, 2-3 minutes. Flip and cook until golden on the other side, then transfer to a paper-towel lined plate.
To make the saag, return the skillet to the heat and add the onion, garlic, and ginger. Cook over medium heat for about ten minutes, or until the onion is starting to brown.
Meanwhile, place the spinach in a large glass bowl, and microwave for about 5 minutes, until defrosted. Squeeze excess moisture from the spinach and set aside.
Once the onions are lightly browned, turn the heat off and stir in the turmeric and two teaspoons of the garam masala. Transfer to a blender and add the tomato paste and water, or use an immersion blender. Process until the mixture forms a paste, then return to the skillet.
Turn the heat to medium and add the spinach, mixing well. Cover and cook for about ten minutes, stirring occasionally, until the spinach is darker green. Meanwhile, in a small, dry skillet, toast the remaining half teaspoon of garam masala over low heat until fragrant, about one minute. Mix the cream, salt, and toasted garam masala into the spinach, then carefully stir in the fried paneer. You may want to start with 1/2 cup of cream and add more if it looks too dry. Cover and cook for about ten more minutes, until the cheese is heated through.
Top with cilantro if desired. Serve hot with rice or cauliflower rice.
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