Asparagus & Paneer Masala

Asparagus & Paneer Masala with potato and swiss chard, accompanied by Saffron Rice

It being springtime in my hemisphere, asparagus is de rigueur.
This dish is my melding of that favorite, oven roasted, and combined with a new challenge for me: paneer – a fresh, Indian cheese, that I hoped would complement the asparagus.

First, I prepared the paneer. As it happens, I signed up for a cheese-making class this coming weekend and was looking forward to trying my hand at a fresh cheese such as queoso fresco. Coincidentally, Tahmina post Paneer – 101 just in time for me to give it a try.  I prepared the paneer just as she described, using the juice of a bit more than 2 lemons, and similarly pressed it at room temperature under a cast iron skillet for about 3 hours before using it.  Once the paneer was kneaded smooth, I also added toasted cumin seed (1 1/2 t.) and salt (3/4 t.), that I’d crushed a bit with a mortar and pestle, and distributed it evenly throughout the paneer.

Paneer with Toasted Cumin Seed

I prepared the saffron rice, first, by soaking perhaps 10 saffron threads in a few teaspoons water for an hour or two.  Then I prepared rinsed jasmine rice in a rice cooker; when it was done, I separated half of it into a bowl, and thoroughly mixed it with the saffron and the yellow water in which it was soak.  Lastly, I combined the yellow and white rice, and mixed them until approximately evenly distributed.  (Chopsticks are a good choice of tool to mix rice if it is somewhat sticky.)

I prepared the masala roughly according to these two recipes: Squash, Potato, and Chard Curry and Subzi Paneer Masala.  I used a large red onion and 2 cans of diced tomato for the sauce, puréed in a blender with minced garlic and ginger.  I diced multi-colored small potatoes (brown, red, and purple) and partially cooked them in oil (left from frying the paneer) before adding them to the masala. I cut the chard stems into bite sized pieces, and the greens more coarsely, adding them sometime after the potato, since they need less time to cook.  Also, rather than fresh hot pepper, I used a bit of cayenne powder.

While preparing the masala, I roasted the whole asparagus spears under the oven’s broiler on a foil-lined baking pan, with olive oil, being sure to turn them occassionally and not allow them to burn.  (If you were to serve roasted asparagus as a side-dish, you’d likely add, salt, pepper; since I was preparing it to top the masala, I used only the oil this time.)

To serve, rather than mixing the asparagus, cut into bite-sized pieces, and fried paneer into the masala, I simply tossed them together, keeping them warm in the oven, and placed them atop the masala so that their textures and colors were retained.

All in all, I wasn’t completely happy with this dish.  The tomato and yogurt-based sauce didn’t have the smooth consistency nor the bright orange color that I expected and had seen, for instance, in butter paneer masala dishes at restaurants.  I used a low fat greek yogurt, rather than the usual [high fat] greek yogurt that I buy at Trader Joe’s;  that may have been part of the lack of smoothness to the resulting sauce.

Here are a few things that I learned:

  • Making fresh cheese is not difficult, but practice may be necessary to get the desired consistency.  Mine was a bit on the soft side for pan frying;  I should have squeezed just a bit more water from the paneer before pressing it.
  • To present the beautiful colors of vegetables such as various potatoes and rainbow swiss chard, don’t cover them in a tomato-based sauce.  Next time I think I will either use the potato and chard or the blended tomato sauce, but not both. :)
  • I used whole coriander seed, that I toasted lightly with the cumin seed.  In this dish, however, the whole coriander seed was a bit too much of an occassional flavor explosion, so I would grind it next time.  (I have had a shrimp and broccoli dish that is perfect with whole coriander seeds, so it works with some things and not others.)
  • Bright yellow saffron-rice and white rice mixed doesn’t provide quite enough contrast to be as visually dramatic as I wanted.  Some Indian restaurants must use red food coloring as well.

I was quite happy with the paneer, and now I do have plenty masala left-over for meals this week… back to work. :)

8 responses

  1. Interesting! I’ve never tried to make my own cheese and in fact never knew that it was relatively easy to make cheese until I saw a guy on Diners Drive-ins and Dives make mozzarella a few weeks ago. I look forward to reading more of your cheese-making adventures in the future. :-)

  2. A lot of Indian restaurants actually use Tumeric in their saffron rice. It has a more intense color and it’s a lot less expensive ;)

    • Thanks! Ya, I used tumeric quite often in indian dishes (including this one), but I always use a fraction of the quantity recommended in recipes because it has a sort of metallic/weird flavor to me. (I assume this is akin to some peoples’ objection to cilantro.) I’ll experiment with tumeric and rice.
      TJ’s had saffron at an affordable price, so I just had to try it… and feel like a king… well, a king that prepares his own meals. :)

      • I haven’t experimented with turmeric myself, so I can’t say for sure if I like it or not. One day I’ll pick some up!

        I know the feeling. My husband bought me a big jar of Saffron for Christmas. Seriously one of the best gifts ever! I’m not hard to please, apparently.

  3. Dave you made paneer from my post, I’m so excited. Yes, you do have to squeeze out a bunch of water by hand while the cheese is in the cheese cloth before squishing it flat. I also put paper towels on the top and bottom to absorb even more. I get the harder texture that way. Also if you want to get a vibrant color without using food coloring or turmeric here’s a 69 cent solution. Go to a local mexican or spanish store and buy one of those little packets of safflowers. They are on the spice walls usually. I’ll try and take a picture of the package to show you. You just soak it in a little warm water just like the saffron strands and it give you amazing color – no taste. The other cool item is Sazon Goya. Made by Goya it’s great little seasoning packets with corinader and Annatto in them or some with just annatto. Great color and it is perfect for making rice dishes, especially Caribbean inspired rice dishes. When using turmeric, make sure you add it early in the saute process to get that taste out that you don’t like before adding spices like cumin, coriander and garlic. Try some of these and let me know what you think.

    • Thanks for the coloring suggestions; I’ll buy some basmati, and make up some rice so it looks festive with a couple different colors. Ooh! That just reminded me of this awesome basmati with fava beans and dill that I used to have a now defunct restaurant!

      I have access to mexican bulk spices, so I don’t think I’ll have a problem.
      Re: tumeric, perhaps the cooking time explains the difference in some tumeric-spiced dishes at restaurants and mine! Great information.

      By the way, do you wash your cheese cloth with soap?

      • Yeah. I do. I also use old sari or other thin materials sometimes instead of cheesecloth. It helps in wringing the water out without the cheese oozing out of the cheesecloth holes.

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