As a self-confessed Indian cuisine enthusiast, paneer cheese is one of those ingredients that, heretofore, I had relegated to the realms of ‘side dish’ in my mind. I’d never have dreamed of purchasing paneer, which is a type of cheese, outside my local curry house and I’d only ever tasted it mixed with spinach, snuggledto the left of my lamb madras.
I was therefore intrigued as to how celebrity chef Anjum Anand was going to fulfil her promise and transform this simple ingredient into a tasty and satisfying six course lunch. I was surprised to learn that you can actually buy Clawson’s paneer from Morrisons, Tescos and Sainsburys. Whilst Anjum is famed for her easy, healthy Indian recipes, she vowed to show us how paneer can be used to make a wide variety of dishes, inspired by flavours from throughout the Globe.
Paneer, which is one of the few cheeses indigenous to the Indian subcontinent, has the texture of hallumi but tastes more like mozzarella (i.e. fairly bland in flavour but distinctive in chewiness). It’s therefore the perfect meat-substitute to use in dishes like curry because it absorbs the flavours that surround it, whilst providing a substantial base. It’s completely vegetarian and high in protein, so makes an interesting alternative to the usual meat replacements.
We began with a simple Thai curry, which Anjum showed us how to make using one pot (this is a particular passion of hers, ensuring the usage of one, sole pot, and as a single busy girl in the Capital I’m more than a little bit grateful for this). The paneer was cut into 1 ½ inch cubes and boiled for 20 minutes, prior to adding to a mixture of fried onion, red Thai curry paste, coconut milk, halved cherry tomatoes,mange tout, a handful of noodles, sprinkling of sugar and lime leaves. It’s so simple I’d defy anyone to get it wrong, and the result is a pleasing variety of textures, encased in a delicious, slightly spicy sauce.
Anjum’spaneertikka masala was absolutely divine, and was followed by the more traditional paneer spinach curry and paneer fajitas (just grab your usually fajita dinner kit and use paneer instead of chicken – easy peasy).
The highlight, however, was the grilled tandoori paneer skewers – the dish to which, in my opinion, the cheese most readily lent itself. The paneer, cut into larger 3cm squares, was marinated in yogurt, vegetable oil, lemon juice, garam masala, chilli powder, cumin, garlic and ginger paste and then sprinkled liberally with paprika (to give the traditional red colour). It was grilled for ten to fifteen minutes on skewers nestled between large chunks of red pepper and red onion. It was a triumph – light yet satisfying, tasty yet subtle.
The paneer tandoori skewers didn’t suffer from the identity crisis which tarnished some of the other dishes. The meat eaters amongst us were generally left thinking that the curries and fajitas, whilst perfectly nice for veggies, left us desperately craving a lovely bit of chicken. The paneer tandoori skewers, on the other hand, were a perfect starter for vegetarians and meat-eaters alike, and never once induced hallucinatory visions of a butchers’ window.
We finished with a layered berry and paneer cheesecake, designed to showcase paneer’s versatility as a sweet ingredient. The dish was elegant to the eye but had been, we were assured by Anjum, extremely easy to make, using mixed berries, crème de cassis and digestive biscuits. The texture of the paneer was slightly grainy, but not unpleasant and the cheesecake made for an unusual take on a classic desert.