Paneer is one of the easiest cheeses to make at home, and it’s superbly rewarding because A) there’s almost no waiting and B) if you live, say, in an area that has no good South Asian restaurants, you can make yourself a steaming bowl of saag paneer whenever the urge strikes. And you can make a lot of it, because as we all know Indian food is even better the next morning for breakfast.
All you need is milk and lemon juice or vinegar: about half a cup per gallon, or roughly 60 ml per liter. It’s a good idea to have a little extra on hand, in case you need it. Pour your milk into a large pot; it will foam up dramatically as it reaches a rolling boil, so allow for that. As soon as it begins its rapid climb up the pot, pour in your acid and lower the heat, letting it cook for a few more seconds. Then take it off the heat and stir gently until large curds occur:
You want your whey to be yellowish and translucent like this. If it’s still milky and opaque, add a bit more acid and turn the flame on for another 30 seconds or so, stirring all the while. Once your whey is clearish, let the pot sit for a few minutes until all the curds settle below the surface. Then ladle them out into damp cheesecloth or muslin over a colander over a bowl.
The steam from this smells really good.
Then gather the corners of the cloth together and twist them, wringing out the whey (like in the picture up top). It’s hot, so you can let it cool a little or wear gloves. You can also run the lump under cool water for a minute, which will rinse out some of the coagulant and make it easier to handle.
Then you can take your ball of curds and press them somehow, allowing for the drainage of the whey. Under a big cutting board with a five-pound bag of flour on top, or back in the colander with tomato cans or a brick on it, or in a proper cheese mold if you have one:
Let it sit for two hours, or longer; however it fits in your day is fine. What matters is that you do it. Then, after it’s pressed, you have paneer: a dense and nutty cheese that does not melt when cooked, making it ideal for slow stewing in heavily seasoned and puréed mustard greens, for example. Save the whey, too, but remember that this whey is pasteurized so it is not suited for fermenting other foods. It is, however, perfect for slow-cooking those nicely spiced greens in until they’re super tender and easily blended into a thick and fragrant delicacy.
I chop and sauté an onion in oil or butter, then add freshly-ground spices (cumin, coriander, fennel, fenugreek, pepper, chili, mustard, etc.) and stir them for a minute before adding the greens, fresh garlic, grated ginger, and then the whey once the greens have wilted a bit. I usually add a fat bunch of fresh cilantro as well, saving some for a garnish come serving time. I also find that some lime juice or other acid helps brighten the flavors. Then I let them cook on low until they get all soft and luscious before stick-blending them and returning them to low heat with the cubes of cheese added to soak up the spicy goodness until the rice et. al are ready. Then taste for seasoning and serve.
This dish is serious business, and when the greens under the hoop start coming in next month it will be even better; this is wicked with nettles and garlic mustard, for example, and a thicker version with smaller hunks of cheese (or the unpressed curds fermented in brine for a couple of weeks, for example, which are great) makes an amazing spanakopita-type dish or pot pie. Every takeout standard that you can move from the “away” to the “home” column is a victory for your wallet, your health, and your culinary practice, not to mention your smug sense of self-satisfaction which explains why you never get invited out to eat any more.