Mar 1, 2010

Amar's Mattar Paneer

As I mentioned in the previous post, our friend, Amar, visited us recently. When he lived in Austin, we used to get together to make dinners from different places. One night, Indian. Another night, Cuban. I still miss those dinners. But we got the chance to have an Indian feast while he was here. Amar was kind enough to teach us to make one of my favorite Indian dishes, mattar paneer.

Mattar paneer is a northern Indian delicacy in which cubes of paneer (a firm, fresh cheese) are served in a savory tomato sauce with peas. Recently, I've had it at Clay Pit with mushrooms added and I really like the extra layer of flavor and texture.

I'm presenting the dish the way Amar made it for us, with the addition of the mushrooms. Know that you can tailor it to your taste. Amar's appetite for chiles was much greater than ours (he eats harissa sandwiches!) so he toned it down a bit for us. You can make it with or without the chiles.

I think mattar paneer is the first dish I ever tasted in an Indian restaurant and I've been eating it ever since. Usually, in restaurants, it's served with a generous amount of sauce and a few pieces of paneer. It goes further that way. Amar pointed out his disapproval of this practice and said he likes the sauce to be more of a flavoring and for the focus to be on the paneer. So his recipe reflects that. Also, when he made it here for us, he used fresh tomatoes. But this time of year they don't have much flavor. If you can get fresh from the garden summer tomatoes, they'd be best. But in the winter when the grocery store tomatoes are flavorless, a roasted canned tomato might have more flavor. When I made the recipe last night, I tried it with Muir Glen organic fire-roasted crushed tomatoes and I think they had more flavor. You can use as much or as little tomato as you like, depending on how saucy you want your dish.

Amar adding the cilantro

Amar gave us another tip to adjust the dish if it's too spicy. You can sauté more onions and add them into the finished dish and stir it up well. This will help knock the chile down a bit. We tried this and it works.

For the peas, it's fine to use frozen. You don't even have to defrost them. You can just throw them in and they warm up right away. But in the spring, when there are fresh, fat peas available, I'm going to make this again.

One last tip from Amar — he said he likes to use the Shan brand of spice blends. It's easier than collecting all of the different spices and measuring them out. He said he used to find them at HEB in Austin when he lived here, but we had trouble locating them this time. So we stopped at MGM Indian market and picked up the Shan spices, fresh paneer (much cheaper here), some pickles, mango nectar for lassis, and some frozen flatbreads.

Thanks Amar, for the cooking lesson and the feast!

Amar's Mattar Paneer

2 14-ounce packages of paneer (we used Nanak brand)
3 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon whole cumin seeds
3-5 teaspoons chicken curry spice blend (Shan brand)
1 large onion, finely diced
2 shallots, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 pound mushrooms (we used a mix of Shiitake and button), sliced, optional
2-3 large ripe tomatoes, chopped (or one 28-ounce can roasted crushed tomatoes)
3 teaspoons ginger
1-3 Thai chiles, chopped (optional)
1 cup peas
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
steamed basmati rice, to serve

Remove the paneer from the package and cut into bite-sized cubes.

In a large non-stick skillet (or wok), melt one tablespoon of butter.
Place half of the paneer at a time into the skillet and let cook over medium heat until it browns lightly on one side. Turn the pieces over to brown on the other side. Remove from skillet to platter or plate lined with a paper towel. Sprinkle lightly with salt.

Now do the same with the second half of the paneer. Remove from skillet to plate when browned and set aside.

In the same skillet/wok, place another tablespoon of butter. Add the cumin seeds and Shan spices and stir. Keep cooking and stirring over medium heat for a couple of minutes until the scent of the spices goes from raw to rounder and more fragrant. Add the onions and shallots and continue stirring until translucent.

Add the mushrooms, if using. Continue sautéing until mushrooms are cooked through.

Add the tomatoes, ginger, and chile (if using). Stir together and let cook down until tomatoes break down and the sauce comes together.

Just before serving, stir in the peas and paneer cubes. Cover and cook over medium to medium-low heat to completely heat through.

Serve over basmati rice sprinkled with cilantro.

Serves 6.

Adapted from Amar Shekdar.

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