Friday, March 27, 2009

Of Wine and Words

My book club has strict rules. We meet once a month on a Sunday evening from 6-9 pm. The timing of the evening hasn't changed once in the three years I've been a member. Here's the schedule:

6-7: Guests arrive; appetizers served
7-8: Seated dinner
8-9: Dessert and book discussion

There are about fifteen women on the e-mail list, and usually about ten come to each meeting. The members are all very accomplished and successful: a preponderance of lawyers, current or former business owners, a chef, many mothers, and one, as a side career, burgeoning romance novelist. The group is called "Wine and Words," and there's plenty of both at every meeting!

Most recently, for our meeting two weeks ago, we read by Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri. The hostess usually has final say over the book selection, because often the food being served correlates to the book being read. In this case, JP and I co-hosted at her house, and picked the book, and served Indian food. We weren't totally strict with our interpretation because we didn't make any Bengali food. The recipes we were inspired by, in my absolute favorite Indian cookbook, Julie Sahni's Classic Indian Cooking, are a mishmash from all over this large and diverse country. Though Julie Sahni has a separate vegetarian cookbook, the recipes in the original run the gamut from beef to fish to vegetarian. P gave me this cookbook for my birthday about five years ago, and I have subsequently paid it forward by giving copies to at least four other people. It is an inspiring and indispensable resource for a cook at any skill level.

JP didn't finish Unaccustomed Earth (spoiler alert: love and marriage are difficult propositions, especially as related to the immigrant experience), but approached the cooking project with great gusto. She chopped and stirred and sauteed as though she were a contestant on "Top Chef," which was particularly crucial since I arrived at her house with the groceries in tow an hour later than I had initially planned. We purchased the samosas and naan, but made, among other things, matar paneer or, as Julie Sahni translates it, "Green Peas and Indian Cheese in Fragrant Tomato Sauce." Mmm!

First, we had to make the paneer. In a large saucepan, I brought the milk to a boil, then added cider vinegar to bring out the curds. So satisfying, and so reliable that I led a similar project for a class of fourth-grade students as part of a college science-outreach program many years ago. The curds were then drained in cheesecloth (a neglected part of the modern kitchen, but a package only costs about $3 at the grocery and can be reused after a go in the washing machine), and pressed, and voila!

Meanwhile, we made the "fragrant tomato sauce" in a separate saucepan. It smelled delicious while we were making it, but I worry that JP's house continued to bear the odors of a panoply of Indian spices for days to come. As with most of the dishes in Julie Sahni's book, the prep time is considerable, but it's balanced out with a significant amount of unattended time while the flavors simmer and concentrate. After stirring the fresh paneer in, this can easily be a one-pot meal, but it's best when served with Basmati rice and raita, that cool and refreshing yogurt-and-cucumber mixture that is so easy to make at home and so easy to overcharge for at a restaurant. At the request of some of the book club ladies, I'm including a simple recipe for raita below. I hope you too are inspired by the delicious recipes for raita and matar paneer and may want to purchase your own copy of Classic Indian Cooking. Enjoy!

Paneer (Indian Cheese)
Adapted from Julie Sahni's Classic Indian Cooking
Active time: 20 min; total time 1 hour

1 gallon whole milk
6 T. cider vinegar

special equipment: cheesecloth

In a large saucepan, bring the milk to a boil. When it begins to rise up, turn the heat down to low. Add the cider vinegar and stir gently with a slotted spoon for about 30 seconds while the white curd forms. Use the slotted spoon to drain the curds from the whey, and place the curds into a colander lined with cheesecloth. When all the curds are in the cheesecloth, run cold water over for about 10 seconds. Then bring the edges of the cheesecloth together, and squeeze to remove as much water as possible. Place the cheese, still in the cheesecloth, on a flat surface, and place a heavy weight (such as a large pot filled with water) on top of the cheese for at least half an hour. Cut the paneer into rectangles about 1/2 by 1/2 by 1 1/2-inches.

Matar Paneer
Adapted from Julie Sahni's Classic Indian Cooking
Active time: 30 min; total time: 1.5 hours

one recipe paneer (see above)
1/4 - 1/2 c. vegetable oil
2 onions, finely chopped
1 t. garlic, pressed
2 T. ginger, finely chopped
2 t. ground coriander
1 t. turmeric
1/2 t. red pepper
1 t. paprika
2 c. finely chopped fresh tomatoes
1 10-oz package frozen peas
1 t. kosher salt, or more to taste
4 T. fresh cilantro, finely chopped

Heat 2 T. vegetable oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Meanwhile, dust the paneer with flour. Fry the cheese in two batches, turning and tossing until lightly seared, about 5 min, noting that you may need more oil for the second batch. Transfer cheese pieces to a bowl.

Add the remaining vegetable oil to the saucepan and add the onions, frying until they turn light brown, about 5 min. Add garlic and ginger, and fry for an additional 2 min. Add coriander, turmeric, red pepper, and paprika, all at once. Stir rapidly, then add the tomatoes and boil until the mixture begins to thicken. Add 2 c. water, cover, and simmer over medium heat for about 20 min. Use an immersion blender to puree the sauce.

Add the peas, salt, and fried cheese, along with 1/2 c. water if needed to thin the sauce, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, covered, until the peas are cooked through, about 5 min. The dish improves if allowed to rest for an hour or more. Reheat before serving, and sprinkle fresh cilantro over the dish.

Adapted from Julie Sahni's Classic Indian Cooking

2 c. yogurt
1/2 cucumber, peeled and finely chopped
1 tomato, finely chopped
1/2 t. cumin
1/2 t. salt
1/4 t. red pepper
2 T. cilantro, chopped

Mix all ingredients together in a bowl. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

P.S. As a side note, next month we're reading Nudge for book club. It doesn't lend itself to a cuisine as easily as Lahiri's book!

1 comment:

  1. I'm totally making this next week. It's one of your best.