Thursday, November 19, 2009
Many of my attempts at Indian cooking are met with limited success. Despite years of eating Indian food, and despite having amassed a spice rack full of amchur and asafoetida and the like, many of my curries taste like.... Well, like hippie concoctions. At best, they are interestingly-spiced stir-fries. I still like the results, in the same way I like the block of Indian restaurants that line East 6th Street in New York City: they're clearly not "authentic" or even, well, "good," but they are nice enough, and pleasantly suggest the authentically good meal you were aiming for. Truly good Indian cooking relies on non-Western cookware and technique, and a back-of-the-hand familiarity with a huge pantheon of spices. Since I don't have either of these at my fingertips, I'm pretty hopeless when it comes to freestyling an Indian dish, or rescuing one that hasn't come out quite right. To cook a stellar Indian dish, I need a stellar Indian recipe. Luckily, I've found a few.
Shahi Paneer, also called Paneer Makhani or Royal Paneer, features cubes of fresh cheese in a richly-spiced tomato cream sauce. You can make your own paneer cheese from milk, but I lazily buy it pre-made. Like many "royal" dishes from India's moghul cuisine, it features a slightly sweet, Persian-inflected spice combination from Indian's Muslim history. Although I am normally a bit shy about the mixing of sweet and savory -- no fruit-studded pilafs for me -- sauces like this toe the line beautifully. The touch of honey, ginger and cardamom brings out the sweetness in the fresh cheese, and tempers the fustier edge of some of the more savory spices and aromatics.
As with most Indian recipes, this features a few ingredients that you might not have on hand. While I'm usually a big fan of substitutions and Iron Pantry Chef innovation, in this case it's worth it to make sure you follow the recipe as adapted below. When I tasted the sauce mid-simmer, it seemed just alright, nothing special. But when I added the dried fenugreek leaves at the end, it turned into an amazing dish. You can find fenugreek leaves (a different flavor from the also-available ground seeds) at your local health food store or Indian market.
adapted from Archana's Kitchen
serves 4-6, depending on how many other dishes are served
2 cups chopped onions
2 Tbsp fresh ginger
6 cloves garlic
3 Tbsp neutral, high-heat oil (canola or grapeseed or peanut), divided
2 tsp ground cardamom
2 tsp ground turmeric
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp garam masala
1 tsp chili powder (pure ground chili, not Mexican-style chili powder that's pre-mixed with cumin and oregano -- you can substitute paprika with a pinch of cayenne)
3+ cups chopped fresh tomatoes (if substituting canned, only use 2 cups)
2-4 tsp honey
1/2 cup half-and-half, or a slightly smaller amount of heavy cream
2 Tbsp fenugreek leaves (also called kasoori methi)
1 lb paneer cheese, cut into cubes (large cubes make for a more dramatic presentation, though small cubes absorb more delicious sauce -- cut it as you prefer)
salt to taste
1/4 cup cashews, whole or pieces
In a food processor, puree the onions, garlic and ginger into a smooth paste. Heat 2 Tbsp of the oil over a medium heat, and saute the wet paste until it dries out a bit, and begins to turn a light golden color. Stir occasionally and keep the heat low to prevent it from forming a crust -- you want it to cook evenly. Add more oil if needed to keep it from sticking.
While the onion-garlic-ginger mixture is cooking, measure out all the dry spices except the fenugreek leaves (cardamom, turmeric, cumin, garam masala, and chili powder or paprika) into a small dish and set aside. Dump your tomatoes into the food processor, grind into a puree, and set aside.
When the onion-garlic-ginger mixture is golden brown, add your pre-measured spices. Stir to combine and saute for a minute, to toast the spices without burning them. Add the tomato puree, stir, and simmer over a medium-low heat for about 20 minutes, to reduce slightly and develop the flavors. Stir occasionally.
After 20 minutes, add the honey and half-and-half, and simmer gently for another 10 minutes. Taste and add salt as needed. Add the fenugreek leaves and paneer, and simmer for another 10-15 minutes to meld the flavors.
While the dish is finishing its final simmer, heat the remaining tablespoon of oil over a medium-high heat. Add the cashews, and cook until lightly browned. Scatter the toasted cashews over the shahi paneer, and serve.