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. :)

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