Things have been a bit hectic lately, because I've just moved down to Tucson to go to college. A few things happened right off the bat that made the transition a little rough. First, as soon as I got here I realized that it's hot. Like, REALLY hot. So hot you always want to take a shower and chug water and if the AC isn't on you can only lie on your bed (which only has sheets on it) helplessly trying to wish the heat away. Secondly, on my first day of school I walked out of my apartment to find the cable that had been keeping my bike safe and locked up cut clean through on the ground with no bike in sight. I guess I forgot about all that "Tucson has a ton of crime" stuff. Third, I went to buy my books for the semester, couldn't find 3 of them, and found that what I did find came to four hundred freaking dollars. Please, show me the person that thinks that college kids can pay that much money for 5 books! It's absolutely preposterous.
Anyways, after spending a small fortune on books I really needed to find a cheap place to buy groceries. It makes me sad that I don't have enough money to buy quality food, but you gotta do what you gotta do... and I'm usually pretty good at turning cheap crap into quality meals. I finally found out about this "Food City" place, which it turns out seems to be a grocery store designed for Mexicans. All the Mexican labels and ads were huge and I had to search for the English definition in tiny print underneath. I'm not complaining though because they had ridiculously awesome deals like 3 pounds of jalapenos for a dollar and 4 bunches of cilantro for 99 cents. I wanted to buy everything! Of course I kept it small and only spent about 35 dollars.
One thing I brought home though was a little jug of half and half. I feel like I always see recipes that call for half and half and I always write them off as too expensive. But now I had a whole jug of the stuff and I was ready to look for those recipes. Only... where were they? I seriously searched "half and half" on ALL of my favorite food blogs and found very little to work with. I even gave up the hope of cooking and decided to just make white russians with homemade kahlua... but the kahlua needs three weeks to steep and the half and half would be useless by then. It seemed all was lost, but then it came to me in the middle of film history lecture. Masala.
I really love Indian food. I eat it everywhere. I've eaten it in every major city of Arizona, multiple cities in California, Portland, New York, even London. It was the first restaurant my parents took me to when I moved down here a week and a half ago. No matter where I go though, I always say the same thing:
"It's good, but the Taj Mahal is still my favorite".
Which is convenient, because that's the only Indian restaurant in my hometown. It's been there for like EVER. I think I've had the last 5 or 6 birthday dinners there. The woman who owns it with her husband recognizes me and always asks me about my family when I come in, which is all the time because I have their takeout menu permanently stationed on my fridge.
Why do I love them so much? Their food is good, of course. REALLY good. But lots of restaurants have really good Indian food. What makes the Taj Mahal different is that they serve a dish that I've yet to find at any other restaurant. It's such a simple concept, too. I don't think I've ever met someone who doesn't like chicken tikka masala... thick, creamy, spicy, tomatoey sauce and marinated chicken. As Dan from The Food in my Beard says, it's the general tso's chicken, the california roll, the cheesy deep dish pizza of Indian food. It's an ethnic dish that has been manipulated to make it more appealing to American palates and it is sooo yummy.
Now, chicken tikka masala is all well and good, but it doesn't do much for us non-carnivores. Don't get me wrong, I have no problem feasting on just sag panner or matar bartha, but that sauce... that creamy pinkish orange sauce... if only there was a way to have your masala and not kill animals too. Well, the Taj Mahal found a way and everytime I open a menu elsewhere I'm bewildered that other restaurants haven't figured it out too. The answer, of course, is paneer. A light, chewy Indian cheese that- like tofu, and chicken for that matter- soaks up the flavors of anything you cook it with. What's really awesome about paneer though is that you can make the stuff fresh all by yourself with just 2 ingredients and about 30 minutes. I bet that's even fresher than the stuff in my favorite dish at my favorite restaurant! And after making the whole shebang by myself, I gotta say I think mine was better. Sorry Taj Mahal, I hope we can still be friends. I'll still call you for take-out!
This took a while but probably only because I had class until 6, had to bike home, go grocery shopping, and then cook in a tiny kitchen with poor lighting, a miniscule cutting board, and 2 pans that I had to keep washing to reuse. I think if I actually got started at a reasonable hour and had a normal-person kitchen situation, this wouldn't take too long at all.
1 liter whole milk
the juice from one lemon
10 cloves garlic
about a 1 1/2 inch piece of fresh ginger
3-4 small fresh or dried chiles or peppers of your choice- you should have about 1/2 tbsp minced if using dried, or a 1 1/2 tbsp fresh.
2/3 cup plain yogurt
3 tbsp ghee or melted butter
3 tbsp garam masala
2 red onions, chopped
1 1/2 cups crushed tomatoes
2-3 cups half and half
2 cinnamon sticks
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp paprika
1/2 tsp coriander
1 tbsp salt (or to taste)
2 cups rice
3 cups water
2 tbsp butter
2/3 cup chopped cilantro
- Bring the liter of whole milk to a boil in a sauce pan, stirring constantly. Continue to stir for five minutes, making sure the milk does not burn.
- Slowly add the lemon juice a little bit at a time, continuing to stir. You will begin to see the milk curdle and eventually it will separate into clumps of curds and yellowish watery whey. Stir until separation is complete.
- Let the curds and whey cool until they are easy to handle. Strain through cheesecloth and discard the whey. Squeeze as much liquid out of the whey as you can and then hang the ball of cheese somewhere to drip for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, prepare the marinade.
- Finely mince the garlic and ginger. Take a tablespoon of each and reserve the rest for later. Mince the chilies and then add the tablespoons of garlic and ginger and continue to mince with the chilies until all components are combined and the mixture is a pinkish hue from the chilies.
- In a small mixing bowl, combine the chili mixture, the yogurt, 1 tbsp of ghee/melted butter, and 2 tbsp garam masala.
- When the paneer is done dripping, unwrap the ball and cut the paneer into small chunks. add this to the yogurt marinade and allow to sit at least 30 more minutes. Meanwhile, preheat the over to 400 and do your homework like I did, or start chopping red onions and cilantro.
- After the paneer has marinaded, dump the whole mixture into a small baking dish and bake for 10-12 minutes. It should turn a nice deep rusty color and soak up a lot of liquid.
- While to paneer is baking, heat the remaining tbsp of ghee in a large skillet. See all that white stuff in the melting butter? That's why you're supposed to use ghee. When you make ghee you get rid of all the milk solids and you're left with a supposedly healthier and richer tasting pure golden liquid that, unlike butter, can reach frying temperatures without burning. But it was 9:30 and I was not about to skim foam off of butter for half an hour.
- Add the reserved garlic and ginger and cook for 1-2 minutes
- Add the chopped red onions and let cook until slightly carmelized.
- Stir in the crushed tomatoes, 1 tbsp garam masala, cinnamon sticks, cumin, paprika, and coriander. Allow to simmer for five minutes.
- Add the half and half. The recipe I used called for 2/3 cup. I wasn't using measuring cups but I immediately knew that wouldn't be enough. I used at least 2 cups, maybe more and my final product was still much thicker than what you see in restaurants. add as much as you want to reach your desired consistency.
- With the half and half, add your baked paneer. Dump in any marinade that is left as well. Add salt to taste. Let simmer for 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Meanwhile, prepare the rice. I doubt you need me to tell you how to cook rice, but basically you boil 2 cups of rice with 3 cups of water and keep it covered 'til it's done. When the water is absorbed, melt in the two tbsp of butter and toss with the chopped cilantro.
- Serve the paneer masala on a bed of the cilantro rice.
Please try this! If you like Indian food then it's really too good to miss.
Have a nice 3 (or 4) day weekend!