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. :)

Sweet & Sauerkraut Soup

Sweet & Sauerkraut Soup

Here’s a nice eastern-european-style vegetable soup that you can make if you happen to have apples and sauerkraut as I did, leftover and seasoned from making Baked Pork Chops. The soup starts with a light chicken or vegetable stock (8 cups), then seasoned with thyme (1 T), dill (1 T), garlic (6 cloves, minced), mild paprika (2 T), ground pepper and/or peppercorns (1 t), salt to taste. Next add a couple tablespoons each of tomato paste and mustard (I used a smooth Dijon mustard). Sauté vegetables in a couple tablespoons oil until just slightly browned/carmelized: diced red and/or yellow onions (1 each, medium or large), diced green and/or pepper (2), green cabbage (~1/4 head, sliced), celery (2-3 stalks), diced potatoes (2 large), and about 1 1/2 cups sauerkraut (seasoned with about 1 T brown sugar, a bit of cinnamon and allspice and sautéed lightly); add these to soup, bring to a boil, then reduce to low heat and simmer for 30-45 minutes, until potato is tender. The sweet part of the flavor is aided by slightly carmelizing the vegetables and by adding diced apple (2 small, e.g., Gala) for the last 15 minutes of simmering (so that they don’t disintegrate).

I served this topped with a dollop of sour cream, a sprinkle of dried dill, and sourdough croutons.

Overall, it’s something like an onion soup crossed with a mild chinese hot and sour soup. Tasty!

Here are some related recipes that I consulted for inspiration:

“Croatian Sour Soup”

“Sour Cabbage Soup”

Spicy Cashew and Basil Curry

Spicy Cashew & Basil Curry

This is the first vegan dish that I’ve made… well, intentionally made vegan, anyway. So I didn’t use fish or oyster sauce. An inspiration for it is the whole basil curry at a local restaurant.

One unusual ingredient I used was tahini in the sauce; since tahini paste is just mashed sesame seed, I figured this is an alternative to sesame oil for flavor and may add substance to the sauce.

Ingredients: peanut oil, raw cashews, minced ginger, scallions, green cabbage, red bell pepper, baby bella mushrooms and whole basil leaves.

Sauce: orange juice, water, black bean paste, soy sauce (substitute tamari to be gluten-free), rice vinegar, palm sugar, tahini, chili garlic sauce, and cornstarch slurry to thicken slightly at the end.
(A similar sauce with coconut milk would be nice too.)

Here are some related recipes you might like:
“Spicy Beef with Thai Basil”
(I don’t know why they say the basil will turn black if you cook it… mine didn’t when I added it last with the mushrooms, and I wanted it wilted.)

Baked Pork Chops with Sauerkraut & Apple

Baked Pork Chops with Sauerkraut and Apple

This Bohemian dinner is based on the tender pork chops that my mom makes, but with a bit more flavor.

Listen to “Sauerkraut Polka” repeatedly while preparing or consuming:

Select end or center cut pork chops with bone (e.g., one chop per serving, 1/2″-3/4″ thick), brown chops lightly in a frying pan on medium-high heat and place them in a single layer in a baking dish then season them with salt, pepper, thyme, oregano. In the frying pan, lightly sauté sauerkraut combined with thin slices of apple (I used 2 cans of Frank’s brand sweet sauerkraut with caraway seed and 1 Braeburn apple for 5 chops); season kraut with some ground cinnamon, allspice, a tablespoon or two of brown sugar, and minced cloves of garlic while sautéing. In the baking dish, cover the chops completely with kraut and apple mixture and ensure that there is enough moisture in the dish. (The liquid from canned sauerkraut was sufficient; otherwise add water or balanced lager beer so that there is at least 1/4″ of liquid in the pan.) Cover the dish and bake for one hour at 300°F. Uncover and splash a few ounces of red wine over the top, then continue to bake, uncovered, for another half hour or more at 325°F; occasionally spoon liquid over top as necessary to keep moist. Serve with garlic mashed red potatoes as a side.