Stir up a cheesy delight with matar paneer

Julie Falsetti
For The York Dispatch

Matar paneer is one of the most popular North Indian dishes, beloved by vegetarians and nonvegetarians alike. Bright green peas and creamy fresh cheese in a fragrant tomato sauce make it a gustatory delight.

Making it at home is quite feasible except for one problem — you can’t buy ready-made paneer in York.

One option I considered was making my own. Because paneer is a fresh cheese, it is not difficult to make, but from past experience I know it is time-consuming.

Milk is heated and then curdled with lemon juice or vinegar. The curds are scooped out and left to drain. Later they are pressed to make a solid block. The whole pro­cess takes about four hours.

Although nothing can compare with homemade paneer, I nixed that idea. With the onset of beautiful spring weather, I didn’t feel like babysitting cheese.

Next I began to look for a paneer substitute. It had to be a fresh cheese, but somewhat firm to be able to retain its shape in the sauce. A little research produced two candidates: halloumi and queso panela, both available locally.

Halloumi is a Cypriot cheese made from goat’s or sheep’s milk, or a mixture of the two. Sometimes cow’s milk is used. Halloumi has a high melting point, so it doesn’t dissolve after simmering in the sauce. It’s also popular on the grill.

Queso panela is a Mexican cheese with a soft, creamy texture and a delicious fresh milk flavor. When heated it will soften but not melt or lose its shape. Also, the cheese absorbs flavors easily.

Whichever cheese you choose, matar paneer is a great addition to your repertoire. Served with naan or basmati rice, it is the definition of Indian comfort food.

With a little creativity, you can make matar paneer at home. Try using halloumi or queso panela as a substitute for paneer if you don’t feel like babysitting cheese for four hours.

Matar Paneer

  • 11/2 cups peas (fresh or frozen)
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil or ghee
  • 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
  • 1 large onion, finely chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne (more if you like it hotter)
  • 1 tablespoon ground coriander
  • 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
  • 3/4 teaspoon garam masala
  • 2 cups chopped tomatoes
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup plain Greek yogurt
  • 8 ounces paneer (or substitute), cut into 3/4-inch pieces
  • Chopped fresh cilantro for serving

Parboil the peas, drain, rinse with cold water, and set aside.

Heat the oil in a frying pan over a medium-high flame. Add the cumin seeds. Once they start to crackle, add the onions, garlic and ginger. Saute for about 8 minutes until the onions become translucent and begin to brown. Add all the spices, and cook for a minute or so until they become fragrant. Stir in the tomatoes and salt. Bring to a boil, then cover and simmer on a low flame for 20 minutes.

Whisk the yogurt in a bowl, and add the onion-tomato mixture one tablespoon at a time to the bowl, mixing well after each time. After 5-6 tablespoons, stir the yogurt mixture back into the pan. This step is necessary to prevent the yogurt from curdling.

Let the mixture cool slightly and use an immersion blender or regular blender to blend the sauce to a smooth consistency.

Add the peas and simmer for 5 minutes, and then add the paneer. Mix well and simmer for another 2-3 minutes. Serve sprinkled with chopped cilantro.

— Julie Falsetti, a York native, comes from a long line of good cooks. Her column, From Scratch, runs twice monthly in The York Dispatch food section. Reach her with questions and comments at julietrulie11@gmail.com.