The versatile paneer | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, February 23, 2021 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:45 AM, February 23, 2021

The versatile paneer

What is the first thing to strike your mind when you read the words soft, spongy, crumbly, and delicious? For most of us, if not all, it's cheese!

Cheese is a highly resourceful ingredient and has numerous variants around  the world. While Italians love to top their pizza with grated parmesan and the Greeks enjoy a good helping of feta cubes over their salad, we have our very own "deshi paneer."

Humble in its origins and versatile in nature, paneer has deemed itself to be an indispensable part of the Bengali taste palate. Even within the bounds of our country, paneer is enjoyed in myriad forms. While some people like to munch on thin slices just as they are, the Dhakaiyas came up with their very own invention with the paneer bakarkhani, which is made with generous portions of this cheese.      

Paneer can take on the avatar of several delicious delicacies, but it has rabbed an irreplaceable spot it our afternoon tea accompaniments. Many people like to dunk thick slices of paneer inside a warm cup of tea, whereas others prefer various snacks where paneer is the prominent ingredient.

Albeit paneer is essentially a cheese with local origins, it can be used to concoct a plethora of fusion delicacies. Thus, here are five different ways to cook with our very own Bengali paneer with a slight twist on global cuisines. Whether you serve them up as a snack or starter, these are sure to satiate your cheesy cravings.      

SPINACH AND PANEER BOEREGS

Boereg (or borek) is the international counterpart of our local samosas. It consists of a moist and cheesy filling that is parcelled inside layers of filo pastry smothered in butter, which gives it a crispy and flaky exterior. The soft and crunchy elements truly make this a perfect cheesy affair. 

Ingredients

1 tbsp olive oil

1 white onion

2 cloves garlic

¼ tsp nutmeg powder

¼ tsp cumin powder

¼ tsp paprika powder

½ tsp ginger powder

½ tsp black pepper powder

Pinch of salt

1½ cup fresh spinach

¾ cup cubed paneer

½ cup chopped mushrooms

1 egg

½ cup melted butter

1 tbsp sesame seeds

6-8 filo pastry sheets

Method

 Dice the onion and garlic cloves into small cubes and also chop up the mushrooms very finely. Clean and wash the spinach leaves properly and roughly chop them as well. Then, heat oil in a pan and add in the chopped onions and garlic; sauté them until translucent. After this, add the chopped mushrooms and cook them until tender, followed by adding the spinach.

As soon as the spinach hits the pan, add in all the spices one by one including nutmeg, cumin, paprika, ginger, black pepper powder, and a pinch of salt. Stir these in while the spinach wilts and remove from heat. You should extract as much moisture as you can from the spinach.

In a food processor, add in this mixture along with cubes of paneer. Beat one egg and reserve about a tablespoon before adding the rest to the mixer and blitz this into a coarse mixture just until combined. The mixture shouldn't be very soggy but should be wet enough to be rolled into balls with ease.

Take one sheet of filo pastry at a time to work with and cover the rest of the sheets with a damp cloth to prevent them from drying out. Halve each sheet lengthwise, smother entirely with butter, and place a small ball of the mixture at one corner. Brush the sides with melted butter and fold the top in a diagonal. Continue this process until you reach the end of the pastry sheet and trim off the excess.

The end product should be triangular in shape; brush the tops with the reserved beaten egg and sprinkle sesame seeds atop. Bake these for about 10-12 minutes at 160° C in a preheated oven.          

PILLOWY PANEER PIEROGI

Pierogi, dumpling, momo, or pot stickers — call them whatever your heart desires but all of these are variations of the same snack. Pierogi is essentially a Polish version of the more commonly known dumpling, which is filled with a soft, fluffy, savoury filling, where every bite will give you a mouthful of cheesy sensation. 

Ingredients

For the dough —

1 cup flour

¼ cup warm water

1 tbsp olive oil

Pinch of salt

For the filling —

4-5 large potatoes

1 onion

2 cloves garlic

1 tbsp clarified butter

2 strips beef bacon

¾ cup diced paneer

2 tbsp cream

½ tsp salt

½ tsp black pepper powder

½ tsp cumin powder

½ tsp smoked paprika

Method

To make the dough, slowly add warm water into the flour and gradually mix this to form a dough. Once a ball of dough is formed, drizzle in a tablespoon of olive oil and knead it for a couple of minutes until smooth, elastic, and soft. Cover the dough with a kitchen towel and let this rest in a warm place while you make the filling.

For the filing, peel and slice the potatoes into halves and let them boil in salted boiling water. While the potatoes boil, finely dice the onions and garlic along with slicing the beef bacon into small squares. In a hot pan, add in the clarified butter followed by the onions and garlic. After sautéing them for a couple of minutes, add the beef bacon as well. Cook this until the onions are soft and beef bacon bits are crispy.      Once this is cooked and the potatoes are fork tender, remove them from the stove and drain the excess water. Mash the potatoes using a potato masher and then mix the two together. After that, add in the remaining ingredients including little cubes of paneer, cream, and condiments. Mix everything together to get a smooth, fluffy, and creamy mixture.

Next, on a floured surface, roll the prepared dough into a very thin sheet and cut them into circles using a cookie cutter. Take one spoonful of the mixture to place on each circle and close the ends. Seal the edges and crimp them to give your pierogis an appealing look.

To cook the pierogis, drop them into a pot of salted boiling water. Once the pierogis rise to the surface, continue cooking them for another minute. Once the exterior is tender and fully cooked, remove them with a slotted spoon. Serve these warm with a generous helping of chilli oil.  

SMOKY BBQ PANEER SKEWERS

For people who do not like meat skewers, this is a vegetable alternative, and a delicious one too! Lined with vegetables that are generously marinated and then infused with a smoky barbeque flavour, this one will leave you craving for more and can be an impressive appetiser or party snack.

Ingredients

500g unsalted paneer

1 red bell pepper

1 yellow bell pepper

1 green bell pepper

¾ cup cherry tomatoes

¾ cup small button mushrooms

For the marinade —

1 tsp garlic powder

1 tsp onion powder

1 tsp smoked paprika powder

1 tsp black pepper powder

1 tsp cumin powder

½ tsp salt

For smoke infusion —

1 piece of charcoal

1 tsp oil

For grilling —

2 tbsp barbeque sauce

1 tbsp chilli sauce

1 tbsp oil

Method

The first thing to get done for preparation is to chop up the red, green, and yellow bell peppers in squares of near about the same size. Also, dice the paneer into cubes measuring approximately the same length as the vegetables. Once cut and ready, throw them all together in a large bowl along with whole cherry tomatoes and small button mushrooms.

Then, add in the ingredients for marinade one by one including garlic powder, onion powder, black pepper powder, smoked paprika powder, cumin powder, and salt. Combine everything together and cover the bowl; let this marinate for a couple of hours.

Once marinated, insert all the vegetables and paneer inside the skewers, aligning them neatly. If you are using wooden skewers, soak them for 30 minutes in water before using them. Mix the barbeque sauce and chilli sauce together and keep them ready for glazing while grilling.

Drizzle oil in a non-stick grill pan and add in the skewers. Grill all the slides properly but flip them continuously, taking care not to leave any one side resting on the hot pan for long as this will melt the cheese. While doing so, glaze the top side with the prepared sauce by applying it with a brush. Each paneer skewer should be cooked by flipping and turning within five minutes or so.

Once done, transfer all the cooked paneer skewers into a large pan. Heat the charcoal directly over the stove's flame until it ignites and changes in colour. Carefully remove it from heat using tongs and place it in a small metal bowl inside the pan. Drop in a few drops of oil directly on the piece of heated charcoal and cover the entire pan with an airtight lid. Let the smoky flavour infuse for a couple of minutes in this manner before serving.    

PANEER LOADED BAKED POTATO

Who does not like potatoes? They are one of the most versatile ingredients available, which can be enjoyed in myriad forms to suit your preferences — whether you like them crispy and fried or soft and baked! This loaded baked potato is loaded with the goodness of cheese and potatoes.

Ingredients

4 large potatoes

200g paneer

2 strips beef bacon

½ cup shrimp (peeled and deveined)

½ cup mushroom

4 tbsp cream

2 tbsp butter

2-3 spring onions

2 tbsp olive oil

1 tsp salt

1 tsp black pepper powder

1 tsp red chilli powder

1 tsp dried oregano

1 tsp dried chives

1 tsp dried parsley

Method

Firstly, preheat the oven at 180° C and wash the potatoes to clean them thoroughly. Drizzle oil on the potatoes and rub them properly to coat each potato completely with oil. Prick the potatoes with a fork and cover them entirely with aluminium wrap. Let them bake in the oven for 50 minutes to an hour. Meanwhile, mix all the dry herbs and spices together including black pepper powder, red chilli powder, dried oregano, dried chives, dried parsley, and salt.

While the potatoes are baking, finely cut the spring onion bulbs and beef bacon strips. Cut the mushrooms, shrimp, and paneer into very little cubes. Heat oil in a pan and add in the onions first. Cook them until translucent and then add the sliced beef bacon, followed by shrimp and mushrooms. Sprinkle in a third of the mixed spices and stir these together until fully cooked.

Once the potatoes are cooked, take them out of the oven and allow them to cool for ten minutes. Once slightly cooled, slice them in half lengthwise. Scoop out bulk of the baked potatoes, ensuring to leave a cavity inside. Mix the scooped-out potatoes with the cooked mixture, the remaining spice mix, and cubed cheese along with butter and cream.

Mix all these together and fill the cavities inside the potatoes with this mixture so that they are slightly overfilled. Top them with more cheese cubes before returning them inside the oven to broil for ten minutes until the cheese is molten and gooey. Take them out and garnish with sliced spring onion greens before serving.

  

Food and Photo: Fariha Amber

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