Making fresh cheese at home
Saag paneer is a delicious and toothsome South Asian dish consisting of cubes of fresh cheese (that's the paneer) combined with greens (that's the saag) in a creamy sauce. The first time I made paneer was in the test kitchen at Gourmet magazine. I just about did a happy dance around the room. I couldn't believe there was a way to make fresh cheese in your own kitchen without any special equipment.
And it tasted very fresh, mostly because there were no additives, but also because it had spent no time in the refrigerator absorbing random flavors from its neighbors. Trust me when I tell you that mastering the making of paneer at home (a very simple process) is well worth your time (and it won't take much of it).
There are two basic ways to turn dairy such as milk or cream into cheese — add either rennet or an acid. For today, let's stick with the acid method, since rennet is harder to come by, and chances are good that you already have an appropriate acid in the kitchen. The only equipment you'll need is a pot, a thermometer, some cheesecloth and a strainer.
You start by heating your choice of dairy (milk, cream, half-and-half, or a mixture of the three) in a heavy saucepan over medium heat, stirring often to prevent the dairy from scorching. Be sure to avoid UHT (ultra-high temperature treated) milks, as they don't work well for making cheese.
When the milk reaches 190 F, the acid is added and everything is briefly stirred. There are two choices of acid: fresh lemon juice, which gives the cheese a slightly citrusy flavor, or distilled white vinegar, which produces a neutral tart taste. The milk then is allowed to stand for 15 minutes, during which it starts to separate into curds and whey almost immediately.
After 15 minutes, the milk is poured through a cheesecloth-lined strainer set in the sink. I tried dumping all of it at once into the strainer, but the water backed up and the whole process slowed down. Instead, I found it best to transfer the curds to the strainer in batches, using either a skimmer or a slotted spoon. After it drains for 20 minutes, you have your fresh ricotta-ish curd cheese. It's plenty delicious as is.
But this recipe calls for paneer, which is a semi-soft cheese. So after the curds drain for a bit, they are wrapped in cheesecloth and pressed under a weight, which squeezes out excess water and makes the cheese quite firm. Eureka! You've made cheese. Now it's ready to be used in this recipe or any other that calls for a firm fresh cheese. Paneer also is a respectable stand-in for firm tofu!
Saag Paneer with Cauliflower and Spinach
Start to finish: 2 hours (1 hour 20 minutes active)
For the paneer:
2 quarts whole milk
1 teaspoon table salt
1/4 cup distilled white vinegar
For the main dish:
1 medium head (about 1 1/2 pounds) cauliflower, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
5 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
Kosher salt and ground black pepper
1 cup thinly sliced yellow onion
3 plum tomatoes, finely chopped
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 small serrano chili, thinly sliced, seeds removed (if desired)
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
1/4 teaspoon garam masala
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
Two 11-ounce packages baby spinach
1/4 cup heavy cream (optional)
Line a large strainer with a double layer of cheesecloth, then set it in a large bowl.
To make the paneer, in a medium, heavy saucepan over medium heat, combine the milk and salt. Heat the mixture, stirring often, until it reaches 190 F. Remove the pan from the heat, stir in the vinegar and let the mixture stand for 15 minutes. Using a skimmer or slotted spoon, gently transfer the curds to the prepared strainer and let the cheese drain for 20 minutes.
Twist the cloth around the cheese, then set the bundle on a plate with the twisted knot on the side. Set a second plate on top of the cheese and weigh it down with several heavy cans or a saucepan. Let the cheese drain until very firm, about 1 hour. Unwrap the paneer and cut it into 1-inch cubes. Set aside.
Meanwhile, heat the oven to 425 F. On a rimmed baking sheet, toss the cauliflower with 2 tablespoons of the oil and a bit of salt and pepper. Arrange in a single layer and bake on the oven's upper shelf, stirring occasionally, until golden brown, 15 to 20 minutes. Set aside.
Once the paneer is pressed and cut, in a large nonstick or stick-resistant skillet over medium, heat 1 1/2 tablespoons of the remaining oil. Add the paneer cubes and cook, turning once, until browned on both sides, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and set aside.
Add the remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons of oil to the skillet. When the oil is heated, add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is golden, about 10 minutes. Add the tomatoes and cook, stirring, until tender, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic, chili and ginger. Cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Add the garam masala, cayenne and turmeric and cook, stirring, for 1 minute.
Several handfuls at a time, place the spinach in a food processor and pulse until finely chopped. Transfer to the skillet, cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the spinach is very tender, 5 minutes. Add the paneer and roasted cauliflower. Season with salt and pepper, then add cream, if using. Cook just until heated through.
— Sara Moulton was executive chef at Gourmet magazine for nearly 25 years, and spent a decade hosting several Food Network shows. She currently stars in public television's "Sara's Weeknight Meals" and has written three cookbooks, including "Sara Moulton's Everyday Family Dinners."