Diwali is a huge event in my home city of Leicester. Some of the largest celebrations outside of India take place in the streets around the Belgrave Gate and Melton Road areas. One of my favourite street foods during this time is Chilli Paneer.
What exactly is Chilli Paneer? Bite-sized cubes of fried Indian cottage cheese are slathered in a spicy sauce and usually garnished with onions. This, I can tell you, is vegetarian food at its finest. I never realised just how easy it is to make my own paneer and found myself amazed that I had never attempted it.
This is a budget friendly dish, in keeping with the theme of helping everybody save money and have some amazing food along the way. Together, we can help each other through this tough period of dealing with the effects of Coronavirus.
What you will need….
4 Pints Whole Milk
4 tbsp Lemon Juice
1 tsp Cumin Seeds (or you can substitute with ground cumin)
1 Red Chilli, finely sliced
4 Garlic Cloves, peeled and finely sliced
1 tbsp Tomato Puree
1 tsp Sugar
2 Spring onions, finely chopped to garnish (optional)
Oil, for frying (rapeseed, vegetable, groundnut and sunflower will all be fine)
How to make it…..
Begin making the paneer at least 6 hours prior to serving. Ideally this can be made the night before and simply served the next day. Bring the milk to the boil in a large saucepan or cooking pot. Stir the milk as it heats up to avoid any burning on the base of the pan.
Once the milk begins to bubble, add the lemon juice and reduce the heat to low. Stir the lemon juice around the pan and you will notice lumps forming as the mixture splits. Remove the pan from the heat.
Line a sieve with a clean cloth (I used a plain dish cloth) such as muslin or cheesecloth if you have it. Set the sieve over a bowl and drain the contents of the pan through the cloth-lined sieve. The curds will gather in the cloth and the whey will collect in the bowl underneath.
Rinse the curds by pouring a jug of cold water over them and allow to drip through. Discard the whey that has collected in the base of the bowl and continue to allow the cheese to drain. Take care when handling the cheese as it may still be hot.
Gather the cloth together to totally encase the cheese and squeeze any excess water out of it. With the cheese fully wrapped, place a weight on top of it while still sitting in the sieve. I used a pestle and mortar to do this. Leave to press until the cheese has cooled completely, around an hour.
Discard any whey that has come out of the cheese once cooled. Place the cheese into an airtight container with a weight on top such as a bag of rice. Close the lid and refrigerate for at least 5 hours.
Once the paneer is firm to the touch and fully set, remove the cloth and dice the cheese into cubes. Bring a large non-stick frying pan to a high heat and add 2 tbsp of oil. Once the oil is hot, add in the paneer in batches.
Fry until golden on one side then turn each piece so that they get golden all over. Remove onto a plate once fried. To cook the sauce, add the garlic and chilli into the pan and cook over a medium heat for 2-3 minutes or until softened.
Lightly grind up the cumin seeds in a pestle and mortar and add to the pan. Add the tomato puree and sugar with a pinch of salt and pepper then pour in 100ml of water to create a sauce. Add the paneer back to the pan and cook for 5 minutes.
Garnish with the spring onion and serve. You can always add a little more water if the sauce appears too thick or too dry, entirely your choice. I love a bit of sauce so I went for the addition of a little more water.
Homemade paneer is incredible. A world away from anything that you will get in a packet. The cheese is almost creamy, like ricotta in some ways. Firm in the outer texture but soft in the middle. As I mentioned previously, it’s so easy to make.
The sauce is heaven. Sweet and spicy, so simple to make and will quite often contain ingredients lurking in your store cupboard. The combination of the fresh paneer and the sauce makes for an amazing vegetarian dish.
I served this with some naan bread that I made in my Ooni oven. You could easily serve this with some rice or alternative Indian bread. Even adding butter, cream or yogurt to the sauce can turn this into a creamy makhani style dish.
Have a go and enjoy!