For those of you unaccustomed to Indian food, palak paneer is a very common vegetarian dish. It can be a side dish or an entrée, depending on serving size, and the flavors are mild enough to be appealing to just about everyone. Palak is a kind of homemade cheese, and paneer is spinach, so this dish is very similar to a creamed spinach with cheese that should be somewhat familiar to all palates.
To begin, I made the paneer from scratch, but if your time is limited, you can buy it pre-made from your local Asian market. I definitely recommend making it yourself, though, as it's fun and easy and you'll forever after be able to say that you made cheese from scratch in your own kitchen!
To make the paneer:
For this recipe, I used a half-gallon of whole milk. Pour it into a large stock pot and heat at medium-high until nearly boiling.
Just before the milk comes to a complete boil, turn the heat down to low and add 1-2 tsps of lemon juice or vinegar. I used lemon juice, but I doubt there's much of a difference. Stir the milk and eventually, curds will appear.
You may have to stir for quite a while. I misread the recipe I was following, so I ended up stirring my milk for nearly half an hour, but if you do it right (do not remove the pot from the heat source!), your curds and whey will eventually separate. When they whey (the watery stuff) is completely clear and no longer looks like milk, you're ready to go. The whey will take on a greenish tint and look like water, and the curds will resemble cottage cheese.
When the curds and whey are completely separated, pour the lot into a bowl lined with a cheesecloth doubled over several times. Let it drain for a while, then when it's cool enough, start to squeeze the liquid from the cheesecloth. When you've squeezed all you can, hold the curds under a running faucet and rinse, squeezing the cheesecloth often. Your goal is to rinse the curds while eliminating as much moisture as you can. After a few minutes of rinsing, your curds are ready to be formed into cheese.
The next step is to form the cheese into a block and apply weight. I molded this into a rectangle, but you can make a wheel or pretty much any shape you'd like. At this point, it's the consistency of Play-Doh so it's pretty easy to mold. You can also add any spices or seasonings you'd like at this stage. I left mine plain, but feel free to experiment. Once you've molded the cheese, you need to add some weight and let it sit at room temperature to let the last bit of that stubborn whey drain out. I put my cheese between two plates and set a pot on top that was filled with water.
Let this sit for 2-3 hours or until the cheese is very firm. When it's done, unwrap the cheesecloth and cut into 1" cubes. Hey, guess what? You just made cheese! In your very own kitchen!
To make the Palak Paneer:
In a large skillet, melt some butter (ghee, if you have it) and add the cubes of paneer. Fry on all sides until just golden brown and remove from heat.
Next, add some more butter or ghee to the pan and sauté one white onion, finely diced, until tender.
Next, add your spinach. I suppose you could use frozen or canned whole leaf spinach, but if you've already gone to the trouble of making your own paneer, you might as well use fresh! I used two bags of baby spinach, and added one bag at a time to the pan. Spinach wilts very quickly, so I added one bag, removed the wilted spinach from the heat, and then added the second bag to make sure everything was cooked evenly.
When the spinach is all melted down, you'll add your spices. I used cumin, garam masala, and turmeric, about a teaspoon each, but use your judgement here. I really hate measuring spices, as it all depends on my mood how much I put in of each. I'm a big fan of tasting as you go, and add spices accordingly. Remember to add salt and pepper to taste as well. I also added one large diced tomato, mainly for color.
Here comes the sinful bit... add 1/2 cup Half and Half. Sure, you could use yogurt or even skim milk if you're watching calories, but the Half and Half really gives this dish its creamy texture.
Now add the fried paneer cubes back to the spinach mix and simmer on low heat for about ten minutes.
And you're done! Serve alone or over basmati or jasmine rice, as a side or as a main dish. This is creamed spinach to the max! If this is your first experience with Indian food, it's a great starter, and if you have grown up with Indian food, this is a great comfort dish. It may be time consuming, but it's well worth the effort. Make it with someone you love, and enjoy the bonding experience!