Making fresh Indian cheese, or paneer, used to be a bit of a production in my home. My mother would start with not-so-fresh milk (why “waste” good milk, was her reasoning), bring it to a boil and then add lemon juice. In fascination, I watched the rapid separation of flocculant white curd from transparently greenish whey. That was my first encounter with the biochemistry of protein denaturation, although I would go on to ruin perfectly good batches of enzymes during my graduate career.
Proteins must be folded properly – into elegant ribbons, twisted helices, graceful loops and tight turns – not only to function properly but also to stay in solution. Too much heat, salt, acid or any number of adverse conditions cause proteins to unfold just enough to get their sticky inside parts to glom together. In a concerted show of protest, they leave the solution as a precipitate. Which brings us back to cheese. The curd is gathered into cheesecloth and suspended over a bowl to drain, before being packed into a brick under some heavy pots and pans. These days, one just reaches into the freezer of the local Patel Brothers for a perfectly rectangular brick of paneer.
So there is absolutely no reason why you should not make this quintessential Punjabi dish of peas and paneer, called Mattar Paneer. Notice that the gravy is vegan, with richness of cashew nuts in place of dairy cream. You can make this dish entirely vegan by replacing the paneer with baby potatoes boiled in their jackets (Alu Mattar..mmm!) or a cheese substitute of your choice.
- Begin by cubing the paneer.
- Fry the paneer pieces in 1-2 tbs oil in a well conditioned or non-stick pan until it is lightly golden.
- Transfer to a bowl of water. The excess oil floats away and the paneer stays moist instead of turning rubbery.
- Roughly chop an onion, 2 cloves of garlic and an inch of ginger.
- Add whole spices to a heated tablespoon of oil: a few cloves, peppercorns and short sticks of cinnamon. When the spices darken and release their fragrance, add the chopped aromatics.
- Saute on medium-high heat until lightly browned.
- Transfer to a food processor and blend with a handful of roasted cashews. This is the basis of the gravy.
- Back to the pan: to another tablespoon of oil, add cumin seeds, bay leaves and a couple of dry red chilies.
- Next, add the gravy and heat through. It does not look appetizing at this point.
- So add some turmeric, red chili powder and coriander powder. Season with salt and a pinch of sugar to bring out the sweetness of the peas. Add a cup of crushed tomatoes. Now it looks good, doesn’t it?
- Gently fold in paneer cubes. Add frozen peas at this point, since they have already been blanched during the packing process. I used fresh peas this time, and I boiled them until they were tender but still freshly green. Garnish with chopped cilantro.
I served the Mattar Paneer with chappatis (Indian flat bread) and home made yogurt.
My most harrowing tale of protein denaturation harkens back to my graduate student days when I was studying the ATP synthase. I had grown 13 liters of E. coli in a fermentor (translation: buckets of bacteria), broken them in a scary high-pressure French Press, spent a couple weeks running between ultracentrifuges and cold room columns until finally, I had my prize- 185 mg of pure ATP synthase in a tube. I handed it, lovingly nestled in an ice bucket, to my collaborator, a senior postdoctoral fellow, who proceeded with the next step of dissociating the complex into its subunit proteins. As I watched in horror, the entire protein precipitated, irreversibly, into a white, insoluble mass! I stared accusingly at the postdoc, who quickly defended himself, “The water must be bad”. Before I could stop myself, I retorted, “The postdoc must be bad”. We’re still friends, and I hope some day to dish up some mattar paneer and memories of precipitating proteins with Marwan.
In Memorium: I was deeply saddened to learn that Marc Ponomareff, a dear friend and frequent commentator on these posts, left us on Dec 3 after a long and courageous battle against cancer. Marc’s brilliant writing, humor and wit, and particularly the grace with which he bore his burden of illness will be sorely missed. We shared a love for spices, slapdash cooking and a zest for life. This one is for you, Marc.