Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Their finest hour: Paneer in tomato sauce with red peppers

Thanks in part to the exhibit at the Morgan Library, which I have not yet seen, Winston Churchill and his soaring rhetoric are in the press again.  One of his most stirring phrases is how the British resistance to the Nazi onslaught was "their finest hour." It got me to thinking -- what am I really proud of in life.  At the top of my list is certainly helping to raise two wonderful children, Maya and Harry, who have a loving and mutually nurturing relationship.  Another is the Moroccan dinner I prepared on New Year's Eve to usher in 1990 (a selection of seven salads, b'stilla, a tagine of whole red snapper with peppers and tomatoes, chicken with preserved lemons and olives, and a sweet lamb tagine with carrots and prunes).  I might put this simple dish somewhere on that list as well.

This is only possible because of the relatively recent availability of high-quality paneer (fresh, pressed Indian cheese) in a number of Indian groceries.  (I have even classified this dish as fast an easy. To be honest, many of the dishes that  I  put in this category are not, but this really is.) I go back and forth on whether or not life is too short to make your own preserved lemons.  I currently think that it is really worth it.  But life is definitely too short to make your own paneer and it is the kind of thing that I would only take on every year or so.  The product that I used is Nanak brand which comes in a 14 ounce block and makes it possible to produce dishes like this on very short notice.  (Guru Nanak was the founder of Sikhism, a religion centered in the Punjab, and this dish has some of the artery-clogging characteristics of Punjabi food in an age of relative affluence, albeit toned down a bit for American sensibilities. There are other brands of paneer on the market, including one that is organic and kosher and available in some neighborhood stores.) The only downside to using store-bought is that you do not get the fresh whey, which is very tasty in preparing rice and other Indian vegetarian dishes. 

I put this dish together in about a half hour a few nights ago. Steve, a college friend of my son Harry was visiting, and they wanted to save money so they ate home a lot. One evening I gave them the choice between pasta, eggs cooked with potato chips, and  Indian vegetarian.  Somewhat to my surprise, they chose the last. I made basmati rice, Begali cabbage with coconut (see the post on Cabbage and marriage ), a raita and came up with this dish as well.  If you live near a source of paneer, try this.  It makes a quick supper and will leave your friends and family very satisfied.

Paneer in tomato sauce with red peppers

  • 8 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 1 inch piece of ginger, peeled and sliced
  • 1 medium onion
  • 1 tablespoon ghee or vegetable oil (if using ghee, you can go up to 2-3 tablespoons)
  • 7 oz paneer (1/2 package of Nanak brand) cut into 1/2 inch cubes 
  • 1 red pepper, cored and cut into strips
  • 2 teaspoons whole cumin seed
  • 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1 tablespoon coriander
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 15 ounce can crushed or diced tomato (the smoky flavor of fire roasted Muir Glen is great here)
  • 1/4-1/2 teaspoon cayenne powder, to taste
  • Salt to taste (about 1/2 teaspoon should do it, since paneer has little salt)
  • 1/4 cup heavy cream (for a real Punjabi delight you can go up to 1/2 cup) 
  • 1/4 - 1/2 cup water
  • 1/4 teaspoon garam masala
  1. Put the ginger, onion and garlic in a mini chopper or food processor and grind until they are pureed.  Set aside.
  2. Heat ghee on medium in a nonstick skillet until hot but not smoking.  Add the diced cheese and cook until brown on several sides.  Remove to a plate.
  3. Add more ghee to the skillet if needed, and then add the pepper strips.  Salt lightly and cook on high until soft and brown in bits, but not mushy.  Remove these to the plate with the paneer.
  4. Turn heat down to medium, add the cumin seeds, and cook until they turn a few shades darker.  Be very careful not to burn them.
  5. Add the turmeric, stir once (you want to cook it slightly but not burn it) and add the past from the processor.  Turn heat to high and cook, stirring frequently, until the aroma changes, about 3 minutes.
  6. Add the coriander and cumin and cook, stirring for another minute.
  7. Add the tomatoes, and salt and cayenne to taste.  Cook on high heat until it turns into a sauce and the fat begins to separate, about 5-7 minutes. 
  8. Turn the heat down and add the heavy cream.  Stir to incorporate and add the water.  It should be the consistency of a medium-thick bechamel sauce.  Cook on low heat to meld the flavors, and taste for salt and cayenne.
  9. Return the paneer and peppers to the skillet and warm for a few minutes.
  10. Turn into a serving dish, sprinkling with the garam masala, and serve at once.
  11. Serves 4-6 depending on the rest of the menu.  Excellent with either basmati rice and Indian breads. 
Note on keeping paneer:  Paneer is perishable, fresh cheese.  Plan to use it withing a few days of when you open the package.  So, either double the recipe, or cook something else.  If you don't feels like an elaborate dish, it is very good pan fried in a little oil and served with a spicy tamarind or cilantro chutney.  It can also be cut into larger cubes of about 1 inch and cooked on the grill.  This is especially good if you slit the cubes and push in a stuffing of chopped green chile, ginger and coriander.


  1. Wasn't that 1990 NY's dinner at my house??

  2. do you want a shout out? it's agenerational thing, as you see form the posts, all of Maya and Harry's friends do