Zak’s Favorite Curry: Mattar Paneer

Last week was the first time I ever made Zak’s favorite curry, mattar paneer, which is Indian cheese with peas.

Now, I love Zak, very, very much. But I never bothered with his favorite curry, because I never really much liked it myself, and here is why:

I really dislike peas.

Or, rather, I used to really dislike peas.

When I was a little girl, peas came from a can, and often had little pearl onions in them. They were khaki colored, mushy and tasted of tin, onion and…something musty, I don’t know what. Something unpleasant. They made my stomach wiggly, and not in a good way.

So, I used to try to avoid eating them. I’d try and hide them, and when that didn’w work, I’d try to say I wasn’t hungry anymore, but that never worked, because my mother was the sort who used to make me sit at the table until I cleaned my plate. Which meant that I spent many an evening staring balefully down at those wretched, ugly smelly green things as they congealed on the plate.

Finally, I would spoon them into my mouth and swallow them whole, wincing with each bite, and gulping much milk down in between in an effort to kill the taste that clung to my tongue in an evil attempt to make my stomach threaten with mutiny.

It was a supreme effort of will not to spit them out on my mother’s feet, but I managed.

Later, I would just take as small a portion of them as possible, and swallow them whole so I would be left alone on the issue of the overcooked, mushy little leguminous balls if ick.

In later years, I discovered that I actually liked peas raw, and snow peas were a revelation in crunch and sugary flavor. Sugar snap peas are amazing when barely cooked, although my mother insists on overcooking them to a flaccid, insipid state where most of the flavor is dissolved away into the boiling water.

But, it is yet true that I have a yet abiding aversion to peas in most forms.

And frankly, I have had mattar paneer in restaurants, and while it was good, it never blew me away. I never wanted to eat much of it, though Zak could make a meal of nothing but it, rice and naan easily. Which is weird, because he generally prefers meat to vegetables of any sort.

Well, last week, after I picked up some paneer at the new Indian market in Columbus (which is named Taj, not Patna’s–I now know why I remembered it as Patnas–that ws the name of one of the grocers I went to Maryland, and it was set up very like Taj’s), I resolved to make mattar paneer.

Paneer is a firm, very fresh cow’s milk cheese that is usually made at home by heating whole milk and then treating it with a weak acid, such as lemon or lime juice to get it to coagulate. Once the curds form, they are poured through cheesecloth, the whey is squeezed out, and it is left to drain overnight. A weight can be left on it to press it into shape, and to facilitate the removal of most of the whey. (For a wonderful post on how to make paneer at home with great illustrations, check out Indira’s recipe at Mahanandi.)

I made paneer several times in culinary school, but as I don’t have cheesecloth at home, I decided to take a chance on some packaged paneer. The brand I bought, Nanak, turned out to be very good indeed, and I would recommend it to those who don’t want to take the time to make their own cheese at home.

Zak is used to the creamy tomato-based sauces served with mattar paneer in restaurants, so I based the recipe on Neelam Batra’s Tomato Cream Sauce with Cardamom and Cloves from her cookbook, The Indian Vegetarian. As I did not have fresh tomatoes that are worth the name tomato, I used crushed canned tomatoes instead, and I changed the spicing considerably to reflect the flavor of the mattar paneer at Akbar’s in Columbia, Maryland, the restaurant where Zak first fell in love with the dish. Batra’s version was much hotter with chiles; the chef at Akbar’s however, always spiced the sauce so that there was a light heat that crept up on the diner about halfway through dinner.

I also have to admit to using less cream than Batra advised, and a bit of milk instead, so the end product would not be so killer-rich as it could be.

I would have liked to have served the peas in a less cooked state, but Zak preferred to have them simmered in the sauce until they softened. I was reluctant, my mind and stomach clenching at the remembrance of the over-cooked peas of childhood, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that the flavor of these mattar were completely different. The sweetness of the well-cooked peas had entered the sauce, and the peas themselves were not mushy, but simply meltingly delicious.

Altogether, it was a very, very pleasant surprise to me.

And what did Zak say?

“I believe this is the best mattar paneer I have ever had,” he told me after his second bite.

That is incentive enough for me to make it for him again.

Mattar Paneer

Ingredients:

5 large cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
1 2″ cube fresh ginger, peeled and sliced
1 red Thai bird chile
1/2 teaspoon aleppo pepper flakes (aleppo is a mild chile from Turkey–optional–I get it from Penzey’s)
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1/2 teaspoon cardamom seeds
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
10 cloves
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon paprika
2 tablespoons butter
8 ounces paneer cheese cut into 1/2″ cubes
1 14 ounce can crushed Muir Glen Fire Roasted Tomatoes
1/2 cup milk
salt to taste
3/4 cup heavy cream
2 cups frozen peas, thawed
large handful fresh mint leaves, chopped roughly

Method:

Grind together the garlic, ginger and spices into a thick paste.

Melt butter in a heavy-bottomed skillet, and when it foams, add paneer. Add spice paste and cook, stirring, until the spices are very fragrant and the paneer is beginning to brown. Turn the paneer, and keep stirring. Add the tomatoes adn milk, and stir. Turn down the heat and simmer for about ten minutes. Add the heavy cream and salt to taste. Add the peas, and turn heat down to very low and simmer slowly for about an hour or so.

After it has cooked for an hour, put a lid on the pan, turn off the heat and let it sit for another hour or so. When you are ready to serve, reheat the curry to a simmer, adding a bit more milk or cream as necessary to keep it from reducing too much.

Just before serving, stir in mint leaves.

Not surprisingly, this is even better heated up the next day. You may have to add more milk to the sauce to think it out so it will reheat properly.

12 Comments

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  1. Thanks for linking to ‘paneer’ post, Barbara.

    Your version of mattar paneer looks delicious. Yum…
    Lucky Zak. :)

    Comment by Indira — February 24, 2006 #

  2. I have exactly the same feeling about peas! I too loathe the grey mushy canned ones (I can still remember the horror of getting a cocktail onion on my plate). I don’t mind frozen or fresh peas with mint but they certainly aren’t my absolute favourite vegetable. Snow peas and sugar snaps are a different story though. They’re WONDERFUL.

    And I’ve never really understood the attraction to muttar paneer. My husband loves it….

    But you have convinced me that I’ll have to try muttar paneer again! (Although I have to say that if we have paneer in the house, I want palak paneer!)

    Interesting, we also buy Nanak brand paneer. It isn’t the least expensive one at our Indian grocer but it is by far the best one. I’m afraid that it is so good that it encourages me to be lazy and not try making paneer from scratch.

    -Elizabeth

    Comment by ejm — February 24, 2006 #

  3. What a funny coincidence–muttar paneer is hands down, no contest my all-time favorite Indian food.

    Yum!

    Comment by Courtney — February 24, 2006 #

  4. you wait til you hear my own “hiding the peas” story. i started writing it in Fiji, and my friend is meant to be doing me an illustration to go with it (one, day, one day, dont exepct it anytime soon:).
    I love mutter paneer a lot from my days as an oft indian eating vegetarian in london, and I would still order it today.
    Yes – it’s squarely one of my favourites. I made it in my early 20s, cheese and all, but I guess that is geting to be a bit of a long time ago these days. Maybe I should try it again.

    (In one restaurant in the UK I went to a long long time ago (cant recall where exactly) they had used cheddar instead by mistake – imagine how disgusting THAT was!)

    Comment by sam — February 24, 2006 #

  5. Mushy peas ranks right up there with canned spinach – stuff of nightmares and my boarding school years. My grandmother, however, made a great comfort food of creamed peas on toast. For this she used tiny little French peas from her garden in a wonderful cream sauce. From her I learned that peas are a possibility. Never learned that with spinach. When we lived overseas my mother always made cottage cheese because it was not available locally. There was always a bag hanging over the sink to drain. In memory of both of them I will have to try this dish including making the paneer myself.

    Comment by Maureen — February 24, 2006 #

  6. You are welcome, Indira. BTW–I used your spice mixture on the little gherkin fellows last night. Oh, they were so good. Zak has taken to calling the spice mix “Indira’s magic mixture.”

    Elizabeth, I prefer palak paneer, too! But, Zak doesn’t like it at all–of course, we would be paneer-incompatible! I also like it in malai kofta, as does he, so I guess we are compatible.

    I think canned peas are an abomination.

    Courtney–we will have to have you for dinner, then. Since you and Casey like vegetables so much, I think we will wait until it warms up so we can have a proper vegetarian feast: mattar paneer, sabzi kofta, aloo palak, baigan bartha, pooris, brown basmati pilau–the works.

    Sam–I will wait patiently for the illustration–I promise!

    Making the paneer is simple–as I said, I made it several times at J&W. It is just that buying Nanak brand is much easier–and unlike the other brands of paneer we have bought–it is quite good.

    You are scaring me, however, with the story of the mattar cheddar. EUWWW!

    Maureen, my Grandma made creamed new potatoes with baby peas every year when they were both in season. That was a delicious dish, because the peas weren’t overdone, and tasted sweet and divine.

    I’ll tell you an odd secret, though. As a child, I loved canned spinach. Who can say? It was probably the vinegar I put on it, but all of my older and younger cousins thought I was a mutant because of it.

    Now, I wouldn’t touch it canned, but I love spinach every other way it is made–cooked or raw.

    Comment by Barbara — February 25, 2006 #

  7. We both adore palak paneer. But when I mentioned your post about making muttar paneer that you, a pea dissenter, _liked_, he got very excited. I foresee muttar paneer in my future!

    -Elizabeth

    P.S. But I draw the line at malai kofta. I just don’t get it and that is where my husband and I are quite incompatible….

    Comment by ejm — February 25, 2006 #

  8. I’ve never understood how someone could murder something so wonderful as a pea, fresh from the hull, by cooking it to death in a can! Since I discovered the little guys FROZEN, however, they have become my favorite (partially) cooked veggie of all time! Several years ago, I was taken, quite reluctantly, to an Indian restaurant. Being an Iowa farm girl, I had no idea what most of the ingredients were, let alone how all these weird things would taste together…
    Then I saw the description of Mattar Paneer and thought “Peas,creamy tomato sauce and cheese – that can’t be bad!”
    Needless to say, I was hooked for life! Unfortunatly, my husband would rather starve to death than to even cast a shadow on the door of anything other than Cracker Barrel, so I rarely get the stuff these days. Last week,my husband had knee surgery near enough to India Garden that I could sneak away for my fix. (I know, what kind of a wife would do that!!!)
    I was DESPARATE! Anyway, tonight I realized that somewhere on this big web, there had to be a recipe for the stuff, so I could make it whenever I want, JUST FOR ME!!! I found several, but I’m going to try this one, it sounds great! Thank you so much for this interesting website!

    Comment by Val — July 22, 2006 #

  9. Val–I hope the mattar paneer recipe works for you. When you make it, come back and let me know what you think.

    Good luck!

    And I am so with you on the canned peas thing. Ick.

    Comment by Barbara — July 26, 2006 #

  10. I made Barbara’s muttar paneer tonight – cheese and all – after having this at my colleague’s house a month ago. She tried to explain how to make it but I guess because I am not from India originally I could not figure out what she was telling me. This one, I have to say, was just about as good as Rani’s. And that was GOOD. BTW the only beings that seem to like canned peas in my house are my cats, interestingly enough. I cannot explain that one… but it is scary. Barbara, THANK YOU.

    Comment by Jill — January 9, 2007 #

  11. Jill thank you for letting me know how your mattar paneer came out! I am glad it was good, and I hope you make it more often now that it isn’t so mysterious.

    I had a cat who loved frozen peas.

    While they were still frozen and crunchy, no less. Weird cat.

    Comment by Barbara — January 12, 2007 #

  12. [...] once you cook with it and taste it in say, muttar paneer–you will be spoiled forever. I mean it. For real. [...]

    Pingback by Tigers & Strawberries » Meatless Monday: Making The Richest Paneer Ever — May 15, 2011 #

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