Tomato and cheese – a classic Italian combination, yes? Well here is its Indian cousin. Cubes of paneer cheese cooked in a spiced tomato sauce, creamy with butter and cashews. A bowlful of comfort that has become a huge favourite in our house, particularly in combination with this cardamom-spiked sweet potato roti (optional; rice is also great).
Paneer has been a favourite for a long while – we started really loving it when our first child was a wee toddler and we sometimes took her to a local Indian restaurant for dinner (it’s now sadly closed). Our daughter did not love milk/yoghurt/cheese, but did love tofu, and one day it occurred to me how the cubes of paneer in green spinach sauce looked so very much like tofu! So just in case the word ‘cheese’ ruined things forever, we called it ‘tofu’ and she ate masses of it. Mum feeling particularly stoked about all the calcium intake.
Wind ahead a few years and our daughter is in her first year of school, and she becomes friends with a girl whose parents grew up in South India. We are lucky enough to be invited to their house for dinner. There is a delicious spread of vegetarian food – crispy vegetable fritters, a soupy tamarind dal called sambhar, and the highlight for us, this paneer makhani (like the classic chicken makhani of Indian restaurants with a creamy tomato sauce, and super spicy).
The girl’s mother and I had already started up a bit of a recipe exchange, and I was so keen to get my hands on this paneer recipe. Unexpectedly, Ranjani’s recipe was someone’s You Tube video. I’m old-school and prefer written recipes, so jotted it down. Given that it wasn’t a family heirloom, I felt quite okay with tweaking it, i.e. dialling up the amount of cashews to my liking, reducing the chilli factor a little … This is how it evolved.
Paneer makhani goes perfectly with basmati rice, in which case it is a speedy weeknight meal. If you have more time, then flatbreads of any variety are great. An Indian-style side salad also doesn’t go astray.
3 tablespoons butter
1 onion, chopped
handful of cashews
½ small hot red chilli, or 1 long chilli, chopped
3 garlic cloves, chopped
3 cm piece of ginger, chopped
1 heaped teaspoon garam masala
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
600 g tinned diced tomatoes (1½ tins), or fresh tomatoes when in season, peeled if desired, chopped
2 tablespoons dried fenugreek leaves, briefly toasted and ground (if available – the dish will still be delicious without)
approximately 500 g paneer, cut into bite-sized cubes
Melt the butter in a large saucepan and add the onion, cashews and chilli. Fry until golden, then add the garlic and ginger and fry for another minute. Add the garam masala, sugar and salt and continue to fry briefly, then add the tomato and bring to a simmer. Cook gently without a lid for 20 minutes.
Remove the sauce from the heat and puree with a stick blender. Return to the heat and stir in the paneer. Cover with a lid and simmer for 10 minutes. Stir in the ground fenugreek leaves (if using) just before turning off the heat.