Sunday, February 3, 2008

NW Washington Cheese: Paneer Edition

I'm guessing paneer (also spelled panir) is the least-known of the artisanal cheeses made in Northwest Washington. It's definitely one of the least expensive, and it's closely tied to our changing demographics, being a kitchen staple in many South Asian households. Appel Farms near Ferndale,, began making it around the time members of the Sikh community that has long farmed in the lower Fraser Valley began moving south into Whatcom County, where farmland was less expensive, soon to be joined by recent immigrants from India.

Paneer is an uncultured, unaged, quickly made fresh cheese. In the Appel Farms version it's made with milk from their 300-head herd. (That's the basic definition of artisanal cheese, by the way, that it's made on the farm with milk from that farm.) The only other ingredient is vinegar. In India, lemon juice and yogurt generally substitutes for the vinegar.

If you think cottage cheese doesn't have much taste, I have to tell you, paneer has less. It basically looks and tastes like solidified milk. If you already like bland foods, there you have a high-protein, easily digestible, locally produced treat. The Appel Farms website has instructions for sautéing, baking and grilling it with minimal additions. My tastes are less subtle--though I prefer to think more adventurous--and I value paneer for its role as a sponge (and a source of protein) to soak up the complex flavors in dals and curries.

Like the better known Greek Cypriot halloumi, and Mexican panela (which uses the Greek technique), panir doesn't melt when cooked, at least not when cooked properly. That makes it a useful visual and textural contrast in Indian vegetarian dishes, such as the Hindu staple, Palak Paneer.

I'm jumping the gun for Whatcom locavores with this recipe, since overwintered spinach won't get going in our gardens until we get a few warmer days, but here it is anyway. To me this combines creamy comfort with a touch of excitement. Isn't that what we want in life?

Palak Paneer

6 tablespoons vegetable oil (Indian cooking is one of the few times I branch out from olive
oil to a milder flavored type like canola; the absolute best taste is from ghee)
2 cloves garlic, chopped

1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger root
2 chiles (Adjust the type and firepower to your taste; I like dried serranos, but my Hindu cookbook recommends fresh jalapenos.)
1/2 cup finely chopped onion
2 teaspoons cumin (I grind my own because the whole seeds keep their flavor longer and because I like to.)
1 teaspoon ground coriander (Same as above, plus you can toss surplus seeds in the garden and then you can have your own cilantro/coriander. A caveat, though. The plants grown from kitchen coriander are likely to race to flower and seed in zip time. For a good supply of cilantro leaves, you need the non-bolting types bred for leaf production.)
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/2 cup soy milk*
3 pounds fresh spinach leaves, or 2 pounds frozen, chopped fine (If you are using frozen, thaw it and press out extra moisture before adding to the pan.)
1 tablespoon tomato paste

4 sprigs fresh cilantro leaves
8 ounces paneer in 1/2-inch cubes
salt to taste

*Traditional recipes use mild yogurt or heavy cream; soy milk provides that same rich taste without loading up the cholesterol, since we're already going with whole milk cheese. I'm an old foodie so I have to watch these things. Take your choice.


In a large saucepan heat 3 tablespoons of oil and sauté the garlic, 1/2 tablespoon of ginger, chiles and onion slowly until golden brown. Mix in the cumin, coriander, turmeric, and soy milk. Add the spinach, handfuls at a time until it is cooked down, about 15 minutes total. The mixture should have the consistency of gravy. Cook a little longer if it isn't there yet.

Add the tomato paste, the remaining 1/2 tablespoon of ginger, and cilantro and keep on low while you prepare the cheese. In a medium frying pan, heat the remaining oil over medium heat, and fry the paneer cubes until their surface is browned. Drain and add to spinach. Cook for 10 minutes on low heat. Season with salt to taste. Serve over basmati rice.

Paneer is available at Appel Farm, at the Community Food Co-op, and at the Bellingham Farmers Market.

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