Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Cheese, Please

Love affairs may wax and wane, but none of you who know me will ever doubt my passion for cheese. I have been known to embark on expeditions to find the most delicious and obscure cheeses on several continents. I can completely empathize with my favorite local cheesemaker, who painstakingly carved a cave out of Appalachian rock to recreate the conditions in which cheese is aged in the Pyrenees.

But let’s not forget fresh, warm, comforting cheese that can be whipped up in your own kitchen anytime you have 20 minutes to spare. Although I have had mishaps making mozzarella, my favorite cheese recipe is easy and foolproof and so delicious. It’s forgiving, adaptable, and doesn’t require any fancy equipment.

Many Indian restaurants call paneer “cottage cheese,” a term that gives me the willies, probably because I'm not a fan of cottage cheese. The paneer we make at home has the mild, slightly tangy flavor of mozzarella and a moist, crumbly texture, kind of like feta, but it bears no resemblance to that stuff you can buy in a tub at the supermarket.

Basic Paneer

½ gallon milk (whole or lowfat, but not skim)
2 tablespoons salt
2 cups plain nonfat yogurt, whisked until smooth
a fine sieve or cheesecloth

Boil the milk and salt over high heat, constantly stirring. As soon as the milk starts to boil, add the yogurt and stir until combined. Be careful that the milk doesn’t boil over, which can happen very quickly if you’re not paying attention.

Continue to stir over high heat until the mixture starts to separate into curds and whey, about 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from heat and drain the curds using the sieve or cheesecloth folded over into 4 layers. Some people save the whey, which is rich in protein, and use it to make soups and bread, but that’s beyond my current level of resourcefulness.

Let the cheese drain for about 5 minutes. If using cheesecloth, bring the corners together to form a bag and gently twist to get out as much moisture as possible. I use a sieve, putting a small plate and a can of beans on top of the cheese to weigh it down and extract the extra whey. Let the cheese drain further for 10 to 12 minutes—less time if you like a softer cheese, and more time if you like a firmer texture.

When the paneer is cool enough to handle, cut into desired shapes and either use immediately or refrigerate. I like it gently crumbled, myself. It can be stored in an airtight container in the fridge for 4 to 5 days.

Makes 8 ounces.

Variation: To curdle the milk, you could replace the yogurt with ¼ cup lemon or lime juice, 3-4 tablespoon white vinegar, or 1 quart buttermilk. Keep in mind that the vinegar and lemon/lime juices will lower your yield to about 6 ounces. Plus the yogurt version tastes better, in my opinion.

You don’t have to restrict paneer to eating with Indian food. It’s a good substitute for queso fresco on Mexican dishes, and it tastes great with any kind of beans. Tonight I’m boiling up some French lentils and basmati rice and topping with paneer and caramelized onions.

Feel free to add your favorite combination of spices. For starters:

  • ½ tsp dried oregano and 1 tsp ground ginger
  • 1 tsp minced garlic and 1tsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tsp toasted sesame oil, 1T soy sauce, 1 tsp minced fresh ginger, 1 ½ tsp sesame seeds, ¼ cup rice wine vinegar

1 comment:

Michaela said...

Can I eat at your house?