Some of My Favorite Things – Palak Paneer and Dal Makhni

A few years ago, my daughter’s friend Sam lived with us for a while.  Sam is an absolute love.    Sweet and kind and enthusiastic.  One fun thing about Sam was that he eats with the same enthusiasm as Scott, and if he finds something to be delicious, he will tell you.

Another fun thing about Sam is his enthusiasm for learning new things, and often, if I was thinking of trying something new, or if I’d cooked something he really liked, he’d want to learn how to make it.

And that’s how we found Manjula one day.  I had that day, as I had when I woke up Saturday morning, a hankering for Indian food.  In my quest to break everything down to its elements, I wondered if I could, in my kitchen, make the paneer for Palak Paneer.  It turns out I can.  Manjula has a video for that.  Sam and I spent a good deal of time watching Manjula’s videos, declaring our love for her.  You could say that the camera loves her, but I think, instead, that the person behind the camera loves her, and knows how special she is.  I love the gentleness with which she stirs the pot, and I love how she gets into that paneer with her hands to squeeze the water out.

Anyway – I woke up Saturday morning with a taste for paneer, and the knowledge that I had spinach in the freezer.  I stole the paneer recipe wholesale from Manjula, and made some tweaks to her palak paneer recipe which turned out to be ill advised.  I found a recipe for dal makhni on another website, looked through my spice cabinet, and realized that, with the exception of ginger, I was good to go.  I took a half hour in the morning to make the paneer, and set the beans to soak for the dal, and headed off to work for the day.  I spent a lot of the day thinking about dinner.

And the spices.  The first time I made Indian food was about 23 years ago.  I was going vegetarian, and the Moosewood cookbook had all sorts of great Indian recipes.  I was entranced by the spices.  By the fact that I could mix certain flavors together, and come up with a result that was not only edible, but was good, and new to me.  The first time I made chutney I was just about over the moon, with the sweet, slight hot, tangy, flowery deliciousness.  Amazing.

How to make the paneer:  Paneer is a soft cheese that you can make in your kitchen with some milk and a lemon and that’s it.  I use Manjula’s paneer recipe.

  • Six cups of milk
  • A quarter cup of lemon juice
  • A half cup of warm water
  1. Bring the milk to a boil in a large bottomed pan
  2. Add the lemon juice to the warm water, and stir into the boiling milk
  3. Cook over medium heat until the curds and whey separate.  Feel pretty fancy that you’re making cheese.
  4. Line a strainer with some cheese cloth, and strain the curds from the whey.  The curds are the chunky part.
  5. Rinse the curd under cold water to bring down the temperature, and rinse away the lemon flavor.  Spend more time doing this than I do, unless you don’t mind a vague lemony flavor in your palak paneer.
  6. Wrap the curds in the cheesecloth in a ball, and squeeze out as much water as you can.  Leave it sitting in the strainer over a bowl for at least a half hour, or most of the day if you have to go to work like I did.
  7. Think about that paneer all day.

How to make the palak paneer:  I also used Manjula’s palak paneer, but decided to substitute greek yogurt for the  heavy cream.  Don’t do this.  You’d just be mixing something thick with whole wheat flour, which is there to thicken the cream, and then you’ll have to end up pouring in milk like I did, and it will be thicker than you want, but it will turn out okay and still be delicious.  Trust Manjula.  Manjula knows all.

  • 1 package of frozen spinach.  10 oz.  Leave it on the counter all day to thaw
  • The paneer that you made this morning
  • Take a 28 oz can of whole tomatoes and drain them and food process them until they’re pulp.  Use 3/4 of a cup of these.
  • 1 tsp of chopped ginger
  • 1 tsp of coriander
  • 1/2 tsp each of turmeric and red chili powder
  • a Tbsp of oil
  • 1/2 tsp cumin seed
  • Manjula says to use asafetida but frankly, I have no idea what it is or what it does, and have never seen it in my life, so I leave this out.  Forgive me, Manjula.
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2 Tbsp of Whole Wheat Flour
  • 1/3 of a cup heavy cream.  If you want to do what I did, then you’ll need to substitute greek yogurt for this, and then just know you’ll be splashing milk into the pan to get the right consistency.  You could use milk instead of the heavy cream, I think, and you’ll be just fine.  Just don’t try it with yogurt.  I mean, you can if you want.  I just probably wouldn’t.
  • Ignore Manjula’s garnish of sliced tomato, unless you really care about garnishes, which I don’t.

What to do:

  1. Make the paneer in the morning, and leave the spinach out to thaw like I already told you.
  2. If you want to do some other mis en place work at the same time, you can mix the spices except for the cumin seed all together and you’ll be fine.
  3. Mix the ginger into the tomatoes.
  4. Add the spices to the ginger tomatoes stir a little and leave them in a bowl for a minute.
  5. Mix the flour with the yogurt if you’re doing this a dumb way.
  6. Fry the paneer until it’s golden brown.  Manjula says to cut it into cubes, but I just crumbled it into the pan and it was just fine.
  7. Heat the oil, and add the cumin seed until they make little crackling noises.
  8. Then add the tomatoes and cook for a few minutes until thick.
  9. Add the spinach, lower the heat, and let it cook for a few minutes.
  10. Add the yogurt/flour mixture, and realize while you’re stirring it that that was a dumb idea. Splash in some milk until you have got something that mixes together smoothly.  OR JUST DO IT THE WAY MANJULA TOLD YOU TO TO BEGIN WITH.
  11. Stir the paneer in gently and let it simmer for a couple of minutes.

At the same time, you should be making the dal makhni.  I remember the first time I was introduced to a variation of this dish was at an Indian restaurant called Ambar in Cincinnati with my friend Scott.  Not Scott Scott, other Scott.  Other Scott said that he’d had this chicken makhni at Ambar, and that every time he’d go there he’d go with the intention of trying something new, but that he was constantly thwarted by the deliciousness of chicken makhni.  He had a very good point.  Dal makhni is a variation on Chicken makhni, using beans instead of chicken.  It kind of comes out like mushed chili.  It is very good, and a plate of rice (also, remember to cook some rice) with dal makhni and palak paneer is a touch of heaven, trust me.  The dal is spicy, I will warn you now.  I don’t care about this, but you may.

How to make the dal:  I used this recipe from a website called tardalal.com, and it was perfectly good, although it could be improved with a little Manjula.

  • 2 Tbsp of whole black lentils (urad)
  • 1/2 c kidney beans – I only had dried white kidney beans, so I used those, and it was fine.  I am going to point out that, now that I look at it, that I got the measurements backwards, so, if you want to do it the right way, instead of the way I did it, you actually want to use a half cup of the dal, and 1 Tbsp of the kidney beans.  Dang it.
  • 1/2 c milk
  • 1 tsp of oil
  • 1/2 tsp cumin seed
  • 1 small onion, minced
  • 1 tsp ginger garlic paste (here is how you make this.  Food process equal parts of fresh ginger and fresh garlic together.  DONE!  I used 43 grams of each, but you can make as much or as little as you want)
  • 1 tsp chili powder
  • 2 tsp coriander
  • 1/4 tsp turmeric
  • 3/4 c of the mashed up tomatoes
  • salt
  1. In the morning, set the beans to soak.
  2. Measure out the dry spices, except the cumin seed
  3. When you’re ready to start cooking, drain the beans, stick them in a pressure cooker with two cups of water, and set the pressure cooker to cook.  The recipe I used said to pressure cook them for six or seven whistles.  I literally have no idea what that means.  Look for a chart on line about pressure cooking and see that it says 6 to 8 minutes for white kidney beans, so try that, but then later realize that that is absolutely wrong.  Put more water in, and pressure cook some more.   Think back, and figure that you probably pressure cooked for an additional 10 – 15 minutes.  Acknowledge that the kidney beans still came out a little chewy, but they were fine, and it may have been because they were pretty old.  Mash the beans and stir in the milk
  4. Heat the oil, and add the cumin seed until they crackle.  Add the onion and garlic ginger paste, and sauté a tiny bit.
  5. Add the dry spices and 2 T of water, and cook for about a minute, while stirring.
  6. Add the tomato pulp and I guess if you want to follow the recipe add 2 T of water, but if you want to do what I did, then completely miss that you’re supposed to do that.
  7. Add the beans and milk and stir it up and cook it for about 10 minutes.
Here is what it looks like

Here is what it looks like

Here is a list of my favorite things in this post:  Sam, Manjula, Indian food, making stuff from scratch, spicy food, mixing spices together and having it come out delicious.

What I got at the grocery store today – Milk, carrots, ginger, garlic and a small container of greek yogurt.  Oh.  And three salmon heads, because Salmon – 1.49 a pound, and fish stock.  And another thing that I’ll mention in the next post.  The only thing I really needed for tonight’s dinner was  the fresh ginger to make ginger garlic paste for the dal, and the greek yogurt, which turned out to be a bad idea.