Paneer is a fresh, unsalted curd cheese native to India and South Asia. The name is of Persian origin and is believed to have been introduced into India in the sixteenth century, although there are records of paneer-style cheeses dating back as far as 6000 BC. These days paneer is readily available in the supermarkets but it’s also very easy to make fresh at home. In the same way as Italian ricotta is made, acid (lemon juice in the case of paneer) is added to hot milk in order to separate the curds and whey, with the curds then hung in muslin to produce a simple white cheese. If you are making your own paneer, you could also add spices such as cumin or mustard seeds to the milk. The longer the cheese is hung, the firmer it will be; it is also sometimes pressed with a weight to remove even more moisture. Paneer is a great source of protein with around 18g per 100g, which is why the cheese is popular with vegetarians as a tasty alternative to meat in curries. It is also a good source of calcium, which makes for strong teeth and bones.
As it is a big part of southern Indian cuisine, most paneer recipes include lots of spices and fragrant flavours. Shop-bought paneer is generally quite firm and therefore lends itself to cooking methods such as pan frying, barbecuing and grilling, much like halloumi cheese, whereas the fresh variety can be too soft and crumbly.
Paneer is often added to curries because it is curdled with lemon juice instead of rennet, which prevents it melting like other cheeses. Traditional paneer curries are methi paneer (fenugreek paneer curry), paneer makhani (paneer butter curry) and paneer muttar (paneer with peas). Paneer can also be used in place of queso fresco in Mexican dishes such as enchiladas, quesadillas and tamales.
Fresh paneer should be kept refrigerated and used within a couple of days to avoid risk of spoiling. Shop-bought hard paneer with keep considerably longer in an unopened packet and should be used within three days once opened.
Michelin-starred chef Alfred Prasad's simple Saag paneer recipe marries paneer with spices and healthy spinach for a pleasing side or vegetarian main course.
Vivek Singh's Paneer and pepper naanza is an Indian pizza with naan bread as the base topped with paneer and lots of fresh vegetables. Alfred Prasad's Grilled aubergine rolls make a delicious light lunch, or for something a little different try Deen Kakaya's Padron pepper, paneer, carrot and quinoa salad in a teriyaki dressing.
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