Let’s talk about fears. I have so many of them. Mine include, but are not limited to:
Being in the presence of mushrooms, cows, or big dogs
Sleeping in total darkness
Driving next to an absurd 16-wheeler on the highway (Even worse: driving between two of them. Cannot deal.)
NEEDLES (Doctors everywhere know me as “that 22-year-old who cries then often passes out.”)
Having people yell at me
Trying new foods.
The rest of them are whatever, but that last one totally sucks. I can just generally avoid things like making people angry and hanging out in grazing pastures, but avoid trying new foods? Why me? It’s not like I want to be all weird about eating things I didn’t grow up with. I just can’t help it. Couple this trepidation with the fact that I am one of the pickiest eaters (like, ever), and “new foods” becomes… pretty darn close to everything.
Trust, it is no fun to be a passionate lover of food who only actually loves a few things (albeit loves them a LOT) and is afraid to venture out of her culinary comfort zone. I mean, I really think a dish with not-exactly-bold flavors (lemon! olive oil! butter!) can be 1000x the sum of its parts when executed well and with quality ingredients (and love), but sometimes I want to be that person who saves up for dinner at a fancy-schmancy restaurant, sits down to a 12-course tasting menu, and eats up every last bite of sweetbreads and caviar with gusto. Alas. Maybe someday.
But I am trying to change. And I’ve been thinking a lot about taking risks lately. So how perfect, then, that when we chose peas as our theme for week 2, the first thing I thought to make was something that kind of represents one of my first ventures into the Land of Exciting Eats: mattar paneer. Indian food!
Indian food was one of the first foreign things I dared to try. When I was… 17. I was spending the summer at Cornell for an architecture program, and my friends there wanted to go to an Indian restaurant. “Sure!” I said out loud. (“WHAT am I going to eat?!” I said to myself.) Someone told me to start with chicken pakora off the kids’ menu. I cut off a corner of the nugget, picked it up with my fork, did that thing where you squeeze your eyes shut and open one just a teensy bit to look at what you’re about to eat and then look around the table before closing your eyes again, and went for it. AND! I did not cry or hate it or pass out. Go figure. It was wonderful, duh. “Wow!” I thought. “A whole new world.” I was excited enough to steal some bites of my friend’s butter chicken. Umm, sold.
I’ve eaten lots and lots of Indian dishes since then. Not a big deal to most, but exciting for me. Mattar paneer is special not only because it’s become one of my favorites, but also because it’s the first Indian meal I ever made for myself.
It’s somewhat time-consuming (and dirties quite a few dishes/pans), but it is easy, super forgiving, and crazy delicious. And eating it always makes me feel just a little more bold. I think I’ll even shut off my nightlight tonight.
I’ve been super busy lately prepping for an important interview, so making it to a far-away Indian market for groceries was not happening. Given that, I subbed the traditional paneer with queso blanco (hence the quotes in the title); ghee with olive oil; and cumin seeds, coriander seeds, mustard seeds, fresh ginger, and cinnamon stick with cumin, coriander, mustard, ginger, and cinnamon in their dry, powdered forms. Totally authentic? I guess not. But, accessible and still awesome? Heck yeah.
I don’t even know who to credit for this recipe, because I kind of mashed it together from a bunch of sources. I referred here, here, and here (top three Google hits, that’s right), and sort of made up amounts as I went along based on what I like. I do this every time I make it, and it’s always so, so good. See? Forgiving! Adjust your favorite spices up and your least favorites down, leave out the chili powder for less heat, sub heavy cream for the yogurt… the mattar paneer is your oyster. Go crazy!
I served this over basmati rice. You know what they say… meals without carbs should probably be illegal. Yeah…
1 lb fresh or frozen peas
8 ounces paneer (I used queso blanco.)
A lot of vegetable/other oil for deep-frying
3 medium tomatoes, peeled
3 tbsp ghee (I used olive oil.)
3 bay leaves
1 1/2 teaspoons cumin powder
1/4 teaspoon ginger powder
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon powder
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
1 1/2 teaspoons coriander powder
1 1/2 teaspoons turmeric powder
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
1/2 teaspoon paprika
½ teaspoon sugar
6 ounces plain Greek yogurt
1 tbsp cornstarch
Salt to taste
I also added pinches of ground clove, allspice, and cardamom. Just for fun. Yum yum.
1. If your peas are frozen, boil them in water for about 20 seconds, drain them, and set them aside.
2. Cut the paneer or other cheese into cubes of your preferred size.
3. Fill a saucepan about 1/3 of the way with vegetable oil or another deep-frying-suitable oil, and heat it on medium-high until it is hot enough for frying. You will know it is when a cube of paneer placed in it sizzles violently.
4. Lower the paneer cubes into the oil, and fry them until they reach a light golden brown color. This literally took about 15 seconds for me… so work quickly. ALSO, BE CAREFUL! There is NO pain like the pain of hot oil searing your skin 😦 .
5. Remove the fried paneer, and lay it on a paper-towel-covered plate to drain some excess oil.
6. Somehow break down the peeled tomatoes. You can chop them into small pieces if you want the sauce chunky; puree them in a food processor/blender if you want it smooth. I had some aggression to get out when I made this, so I put the tomatoes in a bowl and just attacked them with my hands. Fun, free therapy.
7. Heat the three tablespoons of oil (separate from the deep-frying oil) in a saucepan on medium. When it’s hot, but not super hot (say, after a minute), drop in the bay leaves and the cumin, ginger, and cinnamon powders. Let them sit and fry for about 10 seconds.
8. To that same saucepan, add the pureed/chopped/manually assaulted tomatoes; the mustard, coriander, turmeric, and chili powders; the paprika; and the sugar.
9. Cook on medium-high until somewhat reduced, also known as for about 10 minutes. Stir occasionally.
10. Add the green peas, the Greek yogurt, and the cornstarch to the cooking tomato mixture. Cook for about 5 minutes on medium heat. Keep stirring.
11. Add the salt and the fried paneer to the already-delicious sauce. When you have something amazing and you get to add fried cheese to it, life is very, very good. Stir and cook for five more minutes on low heat.
12. Remove from heat and serve immediately, preferably with freshly cooked basmati rice (but also plain, or with naan, or however you like).