Creamy paneer, tangy tomatoes and a gorgeously easy dinner
By Melissa Clark
“If you’re going to eat dairy, you should go all in,” said Anita Jaisinghani, the chef and owner of Pondicheri in Houston.
She was talking about a recipe for paneer korma from her new cookbook, “Masala: Recipes From India, the Land of Spices.” To make the dish, thick slices of the cheese are roasted in yogurt and ghee until thoroughly bronzed, then added to a sauce of heavy cream and ground almonds that is scented with rose water and cardamom. It’s a combination that walks the line between abundance and overkill, but — thanks to the sharpness of the yogurt and ginger paste — never crosses it.
Jaisinghani has long been obsessed with paneer. A microbiologist turned chef who was born and raised in Gujarat, a state in western India, she makes eight-gallon wheels of the mild fresh cheese every few days at the restaurant. Then she uses it everywhere — simmered into curries, nestled into salads like soft croutons, crumbled over vegetables as a creamy finish.
Replacing the usual meat or vegetables in a traditional korma was her way of celebrating the cheese’s milkiness.
“It’s dairy with dairy with dairy with dairy,” she said. “I love it, but it’s not necessarily for everyone.”
Simmering those same yogurt-roasted paneer slices in a spicy tomato curry, however, is a dish any cheese lover can get behind.
The key to making this dish, which she makes at home, Jaisinghani said, is to bring out the tanginess of the tomatoes, which balances the richness of the cheese.
“Paneer needs an acid; otherwise, it’s super bland,” she said.
A zippy mix of grated ginger and garlic and ground cayenne accomplishes this, while cardamom, cinnamon and turmeric add depth.
Although many paneer recipes call for frying the cheese, Jaisinghani prefers roasting it, which gives it a deeper, more complex caramelized flavor.
It’s also easier: You can roast the cheese in the oven as the tomatoes simmer away on the stovetop.
This initial roasting is especially important, she said, when using store-bought paneer, which doesn’t have that same delicate, milky character as homemade cheese.
Then, after adding the roasted paneer to the simmering sauce, it’s essential to wait at least 10 minutes before serving.
“If you let the paneer sit in the hot curry to steam, it plumps up and gets pillowy,” she said, “and that’s what I love about it best.”
Butter-roasted paneer with tomato curry
Recipe from Anita Jaisinghani
Adapted by Melissa Clark
Roasting mild paneer with yogurt and ghee (or butter) gives it a complex, toasty flavor that’s balanced by the spices and gentle acidity of a quickly made tomato curry. This recipe is adapted from Anita Jaisinghani of Pondicheri in Houston. She prepares her own paneer several times a week to use in curries, salads and crumbled over roasted vegetables. But store-bought paneer will work well here and makes this satisfying dish supremely weeknight friendly. Serve it with rice or flatbread on the side, if you like, to catch the heady sauce. If you have dried fenugreek leaves, you can crumble a tablespoon or so into the curry right at the end.
Yield: 3 to 4 servings
Total time: 30 minutes
1 to 1 1/4 pounds paneer, cut into 1-inch cubes (2 to 3 packages, depending on size)
5 to 6 tablespoons plain whole-milk Greek yogurt
3 tablespoons ghee or unsalted butter, melted
Kosher salt (such as Diamond Crystal) and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons neutral oil, such as vegetable, safflower or grapeseed oil
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon fenugreek seeds (optional)
2 cardamom pods, cracked
1 cinnamon stick
1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced or finely grated
2 teaspoons finely grated fresh ginger (from about 3/4-inch piece)
2 teaspoons garam masala
1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
Pinch of ground cayenne or red-pepper flakes
1 (15-ounce) can whole plum tomatoes
1/2 cup coarsely chopped cilantro leaves and tender stems, plus more for garnish
1. Heat oven to 400 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
2. In a mixing bowl, combine paneer, 3 tablespoons yogurt and ghee. Toss until paneer is well coated, then spread it in a single layer on the prepared baking sheet. Sprinkle lightly with a pinch of salt and black pepper. Roast until the edges are golden, about 13 to 18 minutes.
3. While the paneer is in the oven, make the tomato curry: In a large skillet, heat oil over medium-high. Add cumin, fenugreek (if using), cardamom and cinnamon, and let cook until fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes. Add onions and sauté until tender and translucent, about 5 minutes. Stir in garlic, ginger, 1 teaspoon garam masala, turmeric, cayenne and 1/2 teaspoon salt, and cook until fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes.
4. Using the back of a wooden spoon or your hands, break up tomatoes into pieces and add them, along with their liquid, to the skillet. Reduce heat to a simmer and stir to combine, scraping any browned bits from the bottom of the skillet. Cook until the mixture has thickened slightly, 6 to 8 minutes.
5. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in cilantro, remaining 1 teaspoon garam masala, and 2 to 3 tablespoons of yogurt, depending on how creamy you want your sauce. Taste and season with more salt and pepper, if needed.
6. Add paneer to pan and gently toss until well coated. Let paneer sit in the sauce for at least 10 minutes to absorb its flavors. Reheat gently over low heat, if needed. Garnish with more cilantro and serve.