Indian food is my absolute favorite cuisine to cook and also enjoy in restaurants with a bunch of adventuresome friends who like to share all the flavors and delights of East Asian food. The chewy, waxy, filling nature of paneer cheese brings out the closet vegetarian in me, but I wonder sometimes “why does Indian food get to possessively claim paneer as its own?”. Why not a southwest vibe?
Paneer is a wonderful substitute for tofu. For vegetarians concerned with animal rennet use in cheeses, buy a truly vegetarian paneer made with microbial rennet, like the paneer from the Canadian company Nanak. While most cheeses are great to eat with crackers or slices of fruit, paneer is a waxy-rubbery-relatively tasteless entity that transforms into velvety creaminess once it resides in a flavorful sauce. It’s the chameleon that tastes like whatever it’s swimming in, which is why I was so certain this chile scented tomato sauce would be a superb partner.
As much as I love to cook, there are times when I want dinner on the table quickly, so I use good quality Indian sauces from Patak’s like Tikka Masala or Jalfrezi for a super easy meal. It’s easy to find sauces with minimal ingredients and no strange unpronounceable preservatives; whatever I don’t need goes into the freezer for the next quick meal. My go-to choice of protein is paneer. While the sauce gently simmers, the paneer gets cubed and in five minutes my fragrant Indian comfort meal is ready to enjoy with a salad or roasted vegetables.
When I have more time to get into the zen of chopping and simmering, I’ll make this Southwest Paneer with Peppers. Cute little colorful peppers are usually in my fridge and sweet onions are always in the pantry. I keep chipotle peppers in adobo in the freezer for fast defrosting-then-refreezing; chipotle powder is a fine substitute. Canned tomatoes, garlic and my beloved paneer are added to the mix and voila! Dinner.
Dinner, meat-free and easy and perhaps not as aromatic as braises made with Indian spices, but competent enough to fill your kitchen with tantalizing aromas nevertheless. Homemade goodness is always satisfying. I hope you discover the joys of cooking with paneer in your own kitchen and that you experiment with all manner of flavors and spices.
Southwest Paneer with Peppers
recipe by Michele Humlan, The Good Eats Company
makes four entree servings
one large sweet onion, cut in strands
10 mini sweet peppers (about 8 ounces), seeded and sliced
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
½ teaspoon kosher salt
2 large garlic cloves, zested on microplane grater
1 chipotle pepper in adobo sauce, chopped fine, plus 1 teaspoon adobo sauce*
2 14.5 ounce cans petite dice tomatoes, undrained
14 ounces paneer cheese, cut in cubes or short batons
optional garnish : sprigs of fresh cilantro
*if unavailable, can use ground chipotle pepper powder to taste – a few shakes are potent
- In heavy saute pan, combine peppers, onion, oil and kosher salt over medium high heat.
- When mixture begins to sizzle, reduce heat to medium low and cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables begin to soften, about 10-12 minutes.
- Add garlic and chipotle and stir for about 5-10 seconds until fragrant – don’t let garlic brown.
- Add tomatoes with about ½ cup water and simmer with loose cover about 10 minutes.
- Add paneer, stir to coat and add a little more water if you like more sauce, then simmer until paneer is soft, about 5 minutes more.
- Serve hot as is, or over rice or roasted cauliflower rice as shown above.
- If made ahead, reheat by gentle stovetop simmer and add small amounts of water as needed since mixture thickens on standing.
- Garnish if desired with cilantro sprigs.