Indian Cooking 301 -- Recipe #3: Paneer with sweet green peas and whole spices

Indian Cooking 301 — Recipe #3: Paneer with sweet green peas and whole spices

Mattar Paneer

Indian Cooking 301 – In this lesson you’ll learn a vegetarian favorite: Mattar Paneer. It’s so good it really requires no explanation.

Objectives:
  • Learn how to make a wonderful paneer dish, and Indian cuisine staple. While paneer, often defined as “farmer’s cheese” or “cubes of cheese” may not sound appealing at first, give paneer a chance — it’s a hallmark of North Indian cooking and is used in a great variety of tasty and unique vegetarian dishes from malai kofta to the famous saag paneer (spinach with cheese cubes) that is one of the most-ordered Indian restaurant and take-out items 
  • At the 301 level you will learn how to kick things into gear and make authentic Indian dishes using both ground spices (like ground cumin and turmeric) and whole spices (like cinnamon stick and whole cloves) that you can find at your local supermarket — no need to go to an Indian grocer.
  • You will continue to master my 5-10-5 Rule — a cheat sheet I created for my husband Sean of the basic things you need in your pantry to make a variety of delicious Indian dishes.  

Growing up in a South Indian family in Canada, we didn’t eat many North Indian style dishes when I was small, so my first memories of eating North Indian dishes was as a teenager. I will never forget the first time I ate this dish, Mattar Paneer. My sister Myna and I were visiting India in 1991 on summer vacation and we attended an awards banquet where our cousins were being honored in Bangalore. The catered dinner was a terrific North Indian spread, and one of the main items was this dish — paneer cooked with whole spices and sweet green peas. I remember it so clearly because I went back for seconds and thirds, it was such a satisfying combination of peas, tomatoes, cheese and spices in one bite. Addictive, I tell you, especially with steamed basmati rice. Once we returned to Canada, we must have told our mom, because she started making her own version, which to this day, is the version we enjoy the most. No matter where we eat Mattar Paneer, whether it’s in an Indian restaurant or someone’s house, we think Mom’s Mattar Paneer is the best. And now the recipe is yours!

The main point I want to convey in this lesson is how to treat paneer when you’re cooking it, because it can be easy as pie OR can quickly stick to the bottom of your skillet and become an unrecoverable mess. My big tip here is to lightly grill or toast your paneer first. Paneer, which is cooked farmer’s cheese, can be cut up into cubes or slices and tossed into a curry at a certain stage of the cooking process or it can be lightly grilled or toasted beforehand. I prefer the latter because the method brings out the rich, buttery taste of the paneer and gives it some excellent texture. I don’t enjoy paneer that is soft and mushy, whether it’s in Mattar Paneer or not. After much trial and error, I find that prepping the paneer before I even start making the curry is key, as is using a smooth and unblemished non-stick frying pan, skillet, or grill pan. I’ve never been deft at using a stainless steel-based skillet or pan to do this because the oil and paneer end up sticking together and it becomes a grand battle between me, my spatula, and the saucepan that’s stuck with oil and quickly hardening cheese. So as I said, my big tip here is to lightly grill or toast your paneer first, put it aside on some paper towels; then, make the curry and gently fold in the paneer at the end. It’s perfection every time. Just follow the photos below.

Mom’s Mattar Paneer

Ingredients

  • 1 package (14 ounces/400 grams) paneer, cut into cubes (I usually use Nanak brand)
  • Cooking spray
  • 2 tablespoons canola oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
  • 1-inch piece ginger root, peeled and finely chopped
  • 2 cinnamon stick
  • 2-3 green cardamom
  • 2-3 whole cloves
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1/2 teaspoon garam masala
  • 1 teaspoon cumin powder
  • 1 teaspoon coriander powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon chilli powder (you can use cayenne OR red chilli flakes)
  • 1 teaspoon salt (adjust to taste)
  • 1 cup frozen peas
  • 2 cups water
  • 2 tablespoons cream (to finish)
  • Fresh cilantro, finely chopped (for garnish)

Preparation

  1. Heat cooking spray in wide non-stick frying pan on medium to medium-high. Add paneer and fry until the pieces are slightly browned on both sides. Remove each piece with tongs to a platter lined with paper towel.
  2. In a wide saucepan add canola oil and cumin seeds and heat on medium-high. Once the cumin seeds start to glisten and move, add the onion, garlic, ginger, cinnamon, cardamom and cloves. Stir well and cook for 1 minute. Add tomato paste, garam masala, cumin powder, coriander powder, chilli powder, and salt and continue to saute, watching the flame carefully so it doesn’t burn.
  3. Add  frozen peas and water, combining well. Cover and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook for 2 minutes.
  4. Fold paneer cubes into the pan and heat through for 2 minutes.
  5. Turn the heat off. Stir in cream, gently mixing to combine. Garnish with fresh cilantro.
Ingredients for Mattar Paneer

Starting from top left: onion, garlic, ginger, sweet green peas, paneer, cinnamon stick, green cardamom, whole cloves, cumin seeds, coriander powder, cumin powder, garam masala, red chilli powder, salt, tomato paste

Lightly browning pieces of paneer in non-stick frying pan for Mattar Paneer

Lightly brown the paneer pieces in a non-stick frying pan with cooking spray

Lightly browning pieces of paneer in non-stick frying pan for Mattar Paneer

This gives the paneer some much-needed color and texture

Browned pieces of paneer on a paper towel-lined platter for Mattar Paneer

Once the pieces are toasty on each side, remove to a platter lined with paper towel

Heating canola oil and cumin seeds for Mattar Paneer

In a wide skillet, heat canola oil and cumin seeds together

Adding spices to non-stick frying pan for Mattar Paneer

Add onions, garlic, ginger, cinnamon stick, green cardamom, and whole cloves

Adding tomato paste and spices to non-stick frying pan for Matter Paneer

Add tomato paste, coriander powder, cumin powder, garam masala, chilli powder and salt; mix well, watching the flame so it doesn’t burn

Adding frozen peas and water for Mattar Paneer

Add frozen peas and water; mix well to combine and bring to a boil

Adding browned paneer pieces for Mattar Paneer

After it has been simmering for a few minutes, add paneer and continue simmering to heat through for 2 minutes

Gently adding a touch of cream to Mattar Paneer

Turn off heat and gently stir in 2 tablespoons of cream to finish; home cooking often uses far less oil and cream than restaurant cooking, like a touch of half-and-half to finish the dish