For years, I’ve been wanting to learn how to make paneer. That creamy, semi-soft cheese bobs in one of my favorite dishes at Indian restaurants: saag paneer. The first year I lived in New York, my friend Gabe and I decided to meet nearly every Friday at one of the restaurants on 6th Street and sample new dishes every time. However, just in case they weren’t to our liking, we also ordered something familiar for each of us. I always ordered saag paneer. It always comforted me with its ample amount of healthy green spinach and the squares of cheese slightly melting in with all the spices.
And yet, somehow, I had never made it. Until this week.
Enter one Aarti Sequeira to make me do it, finally.
Have you heard of Aarti? She began in her apartment in LA, cooking dishes in front of a small camera and posting on You Tube. From there, she began working for Good Bite, the internet video cooking show that we did for awhile. Aarti cooked a few of our recipes on camera for those videos. That’s where she caught my eye. She’s darling. (Sorry if you don’t like that word, Aarti, but it’s true. Darling.) Vivacious and funny, solid without taking herself too seriously, Aarti has a deep passion for food. She grew up in Dubai and is of Indian heritage — she has a huge array of flavors in her memory. But more than that, she’s not a food snob. She just LOVES food and gatherings and good people.
The tagline on her website? Eat, giggle, repeat.
We dig her.
However, most of you will have heard of her from her show on the Food Network: Aarti Party. (She took all that experience and won the competition, The Next Food Network Star!) Have you seen it? Each episode, Aarti shows you how to make dishes with spectacular flavors without much fuss. Mostly, she’s just so damned fun to watch.
Aarti and I have become Twitter friends, and we’ve been talking back and forth about food and tv and the people we like and absurdity for months. Her third season of Aarti Party debuted this month. I wanted you to know about this show in particular because Aarti found out recently that she’s gluten intolerant. And so, much of the food on her show will be gluten-free as well.
So Aarti sent me a preview of the recipes she’ll be showing at the end of July: homemade paneer and saag paneer. I couldn’t resist. (She’s being kind enough to let me share them here. The photos you see here show the process of making the paneer.) And I loved talking back and forth with her about food and cooking on tv and making mistakes.
What foods inspire you? And when?
I’m so spoiled living here in LA because I can pop over to a farmers market EVERY DAY OF THE YEAR! Isn’t that amazing? It really reminds me of Dubai, because every Friday (our day off), Dad would head over to the huge open-air market in the older part of Dubai… there he’d sample fruit from literally all over the world: lychees from Malaysia, apricots from Iran, those precious Alphonso mangoes from India. I think that’s why I respond to seasonal produce so much — it’s not that it’s hip. It’s in my blood! My dad comes from a farming family (they grew rice, coconuts etc.) so there’s something in my heart that literally weeps at the sight of beets freshly ripped from the ground; that is what inspires me in the kitchen… I want to make the most of that farmer’s hard work.
How is cooking for television different than cooking in your own kitchen?
Well, first of all, I make a huge mess when I’m cooking at home; it’s nothing extraordinary, but it’s certainly not as neat as I am on camera! I had to learn to keep cleaning up my board, rather than leaving garlic skins and cucumber ends on it… it just doesn’t look good on TV. Also, in my kitchen, I’m usually frowning at my food, because I’m focusing on it so much — but that doesn’t look that great on camera either! Haha! I still remember using an immersion blender on my Chicken Tikka Masala sauce, and my executive producer muttering in my ear, “a little less grimacing please!”. It makes me laugh to think about it. When it comes to writing recipes, I try to simplify, knowing that most folks don’t have the time or the access or the energy to source to all the ingredients that I use, nor do they have the time to make a meal that takes me two hours to prepare. I’m learning that the simpler the recipe, the more likely people are to make it. To this day, my most popular recipe might be my Massaged Kale Salad, which basically uses kale, lemon juice, olive oil and salt.
What’s one thing you wish everyone knew about cooking?
That it’s ok to make mistakes. I’m still astonished when people talk to me as if I don’t know what it’s like to royally mess things up in the kitchen. I’m like, um, you don’t know me at all! I mess up all the time. All. The. Time! Even now, when I’m cooking much more than I used to, I still turn out duds. And that’s ok. Every time you make a dish that’s less than say, edible, just remember that you struck gold: you learned something new!
What’s one thing you wish everyone knew about food from India?
That curry is not a spice! Curry is not just one thing! There are a lot of misconceptions about curries, and I don’t blame anyone for thinking that curry is a spice in the same way that say, cinnamon or cumin is; I’m hoping to shed some light on things like that. See, “curry” means nothing more than “gravy”. There isn’t one formula to a curry. That would be like saying, there’s only one sauce. There isn’t. Every curry in the Indian repertoire has a different, specific blend of spices that go into it. And it goes beyond that: my vindaloo is slightly different from my mum’s vindaloo, just like one woman’s marinara is different from her neighbour’s. So what’s curry powder then, you may be asking. That actually came about after the British left India (or so legend tells it); they craved the spicy flavours of India so someone came up with this generic powder that mixed up all the spices we ever used into one beast. I don’t villify it — I use it in a pinch for things like my Curried Popcorn or my Spiced Hot Chocolate. But curry powder does not a curry make. I did a video on the subject; you can find it in the Video section of my page on the Food Network website (foodnetwork.com/aartiparty).
How did you find out you are gluten intolerant? And how does it affect your life now?
Actually, it came about near the end of Food Network Star. I’d been struggling from acne (for the first time in my life, which I suppose is a blessing) for a number of years, and not just any acne — the horribly painful and long-lived cystic kind. I felt awfully ugly and deformed. I know, I’m vain. But whatever. I digress. April, who was taking care of our makeup on that shoot, suggested that I try cutting out gluten. I wasn’t convinced; honestly, I thought it was just another form of that extreme California-hippy-dippy stuff. Then my sister-in-law in North Carolina suggested the same thing, having cut it out recently and experienced immense freedom from acne and stomach cramps. I also suffer from psoriasis. So I tried it for a month or so, and while the psoriasis didn’t clear up, the acne definitely did. I also lost some weight, probably a combination of not eating as many carbs, and also, I suspect losing any inflammation that was happening in my body every time I eat gluten. I count it as a blessing that I don’t suffer from the days-long stomach cramps that some people do; I can handle a little at a time. But I’m happier without it as a whole. I still do miss things like pasta and oh my golly goodness, how I miss croissants! I quizz waiters at restaurants about whether certain dishes are made with breadcrumbs or flour, and I’m finding them savvier about it in recent months, thank goodness. But I did have to chide a local ice-cream truck company recently because their staff didn’t know whether their goods contained gluten, but made a friend of mine feel crappy for asking. I don’t think people fully understand how severely they can hurt people who suffer from gluten allergies/intolerance/celiac. They think we’re over-reacting.
What’s your idea of the perfect gathering over food?
We have a lovely porch in our apartment that overlooks the neighbourhood, and on a rare clear day here in LA, you can see the mountains and the Hollywood sign. When the cool breezes are sweeping off the ocean, swish-swishing through the palm trees on our street, accompanied by the sparkly sunshine… I don’t think there’s much I can add to make the perfect gathering! I love pulling the grill up on the porch, smoking a couple of pork shoulders, simmering up a sweet-savory barbecue sauce and making pulled pork sandwiches, one after another. My favourite memory is having about 30 people over in our tiny place (about 600 square feet!) for my husband’s birthday; some of my friends were building a fort in the living room (yeah, a fort!), while others helped me shred the pork with their bare hands… we tossed it in the barbecue sauce, pulled out the white bread and pickles, and everyone lined up to get themselves a sandwich as the sun set. It was pretty much a perfect day! The best gathering often require the least planning; the less fussier they are, the more available you are, and the more at ease your guests are.
What is something you don’t know about food that you want to learn?
Man, there is SO MUCH to learn! I’d like to learn more about charcuterie and ice cream. Yeah. Bacon. And ice cream. Two of my favourite foods on the planet.
What is something you know about food now that you want everyone else to learn?
Salt, salt, salt. The biggest lesson I ever learned when I was interning in Suzanne Goin’s kitchen at Lucques was the power of salt. I was cooking with the creme de la creme of produce, at the peak of their season… and yet, if I didn’t use the right amount of salt (ie. more than I thought necessary), all the perfect tomatoes and fancy olive oil in the world couldn’t make the dish taste good. Salt is your friend. Oh and acid. You know that last taste you do before you serve? When you usually season with salt and pepper? Try a squeeze of lemon juice, and a dribble of vinegar. Acid is a seasoning too! When I learned that, it blew my mind!
What’s your favorite cooking music?
Nearly anything that my husband puts together. He puts together a new mix nearly every month. At the moment, I’m loving Mumford & Sons, the new My Morning Jacket, Daniel Merriweather and James Blake. And Tuneyards. My how I love that woman!!
What’s your favorite part of your own show?
The party scenes, for sure. Being that I’m so far from home, my friends are so important to me, and it only feels right to be able to share this with them — I love actually sharing the food with them, and they make me feel like a rockstar.
Oh, and of course, meeting people on the street, on Facebook & Twitter, on my blog… who have actually trusted me enough to try one of my recipes. That is AMAZING. It’s a real sign of trust to go out, buy the ingredients and devote one of your meals to trying out someone’s recipe. I am honoured by that level of trust.
These recipes were written by Aarti, so you’re reading her voice. But I want to start by saying that making this paneer was far easier than I ever dreamed, as well as fun. And the saag paneer? Easy peasy. It’s also the first time I have ever made an Indian dish that tasted as good as it does in restaurants.
Watch Aarti Party Saturday mornings at 9. You’ll enjoy it, I’m sure.
Paneer: Homemade Indian Cheese
Makes 12 ounces of cheese
8 cups whole milk
¼ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (have a couple of extra lemons on hand just in case; see below)
Line a large colander with a large double layer of cheesecloth, and set it in your sink.
In a large, wide pot bring milk to a gentle boil over medium heat, stirring frequently to avoid burning the bottom (a nonstick pot works really well for this purpose). This will take a little while so be patient!
Add lemon juice and turn heat down to low. Stirring gently, you should almost immediately see the curds (white milk solids) and whey (the greenish liquid) separate. Don’t fret. This is perfect! If the milk doesn’t separate, juice some more lemons, and add a couple more tablespoons. Boost the heat again, and the milk should separate. Stir in a motion that gathers the curds together rather than break them up.
Remove the pot from heat, and carefully pour the contents into the cheesecloth-lined colander. Gently rinse with cool water to get rid of the lemon flavour. At this point, you could squeeze out some of the liquid, and serve with some honey and some nuts, almost like a fresh ricotta!
Grab the ends of the cheesecloth and twist the ball of cheese to squeeze out excess whey. Tie the cheesecloth to your kitchen faucet, and allow the cheese to drain about 5 minutes.
Twisting the ball to compact the cheese into a block, place on a plate with the twisted part of the cheesecloth on the side (this will ensure your block of cheese is nice and smooth!), and set another plate on top. Weigh down with some cans of beans or a heavy pot. Move to the fridge and let it sit about 20 minutes.
Unwrap your beautiful disc of homemade cheese! You did it! You can now use this in any number of traditional Indian dishes, like saag paneer.
Saag Paneer: Spinach with Indian Cheese
12 ounces paneer (Indian cheese, either made from my recipe, or store-bought), cut into 1-inch cubes
1 teaspoon turmeric
½ teaspoon cayenne
1 teaspoon kosher salt
3 tablespoons vegetable oil + 1½ tablespoons extra
1 16-ounce package frozen chopped spinach
1 medium white onion, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
1-inch thumb ginger, peeled and minced (about 1 tablespoon)
1 large green Serrano chilli, chopped finely (seeds removed if you don’t like it spicy!)
½ teaspoon garam masala
2 teaspoons ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cumin
½ cup water
½ cup plain yogurt, whisked until smooth
In a large bowl, whisk together turmeric, cayenne, salt and oil. Gently, drop in the cubes of paneer and toss gently, taking care not to break the cubes if you’re using the homemade kind. Let the cubes marinate while you get the rest of your ingredients together and prepped.
Thaw spinach in microwave (5 minutes on high), then puree in your food processor until smooth. Alternatively, you can chop it up very finely with your knife.
Place a large nonstick skillet over medium heat, and add paneer as the pan warms. In a couple of minutes, give the pan a toss; each piece of paneer should be browned on one side. Fry another minute or so, and then remove the paneer from the pan onto a plate.
Add extra oil to the pan. Add the onions, ginger, garlic and green chili. Now here’s the important part: sauté the mixture until it’s evenly toffee-coloured, which should take about 15 minutes. Don’t skip this step – this is the foundation of the dish! If you feel like the mixture is drying out and burning, add a couple of tablespoons of water.
Add the garam masala, coriander and cumin. If you haven’t already, sprinkle a little water to keep the spices from burning. Cook, stirring often, for 3 to 5 minutes, until the raw scent of the spices cooks out, and it all smells a bit more melodious.
Add the spinach, and stir well, incorporating the spiced onion mixture into the spinach. Add the a little salt and ½ cup water, stir, and cook about 5 minutes with the lid on.
Now, turn the heat off. Add the yogurt, a little at a time to keep it from curdling. Once the yogurt is well mixed into the spinach, add the paneer. Turn the heat back on, cover and cook 5 minutes so everything is warmed through and serve.