Weird Crap I Cook: Paneer-za (feat. homemade paneer)

Last week a friend from school requested I give a shot to making Indian food, specifically a paneer.  In case you didn’t figure it out from the Cabot desserts or the salt baked fish, I am a sucker for requests/challenges and incapable of passing them up.  So, if you’ve got requests, feel free to throw them my way and I will do my best to accommodate.

Anyhoo, I’ve been thinking about getting into cheese making for awhile, so reading about paneer and seeing how quick and easy it is made it a bloggin’ no brainer.  Around noon on Friday, I texted Conman and asked him to pick me up the necessary whole milk, buttermilk and cheesecloth.  Eight hours later, after a dece dinner and post work imbibing with Con and Trisha, I returned home with them to the scene of such memorable meals as fried bone marrow and salmon wings and got started on the cheese.

First up was putting a quart of milk in a large pot over medium/high heat.

The debut of the iPhone as a primary photo taker since I forgot to bring a camera.  I don’t think I will willingly make the iPhone the main camera moving forward

The idea was to bring the whole milk to a boil then stir in 8 ounces of cold buttermilk which would help separate the milk into curds and whey.  The only problem was that boiling milk almost immediately expands enormously and boils over in seconds no matter how big the pot is.  I’ve got scorch marks all over my oven from boiling celery root in milk.  Since I was at Con and Trisha’s, I wanted to avoid that so I heated it slowly while standing over it and staring.

Now for a washed out picture of buttermilk.

The Dowley’s have excellent stouts in their fridge and keep the glasses full of them.  I use buttermilk so rarely when cooking, but every time I do it makes something delicious.  Pancakes and anything deep fried are 10x better with buttermilk involved

After sitting and watching the milk for 10 minutes or so with no change, I finally got impatient and stirred the pot, which is when I recognized my lazy mistake.  As I stirred, some lightly browned pieces of scorched milk came off the bottom of the pot meaning I should have been stirring the whole time.  Whoopsie daisy, now you finally have proof that I’m not perfect.

The bits of tannish-orange are what came off the bottom of the pot.  I tasted one to make sure it wasn’t too scorched and the flavor was fine.  Oh well, made for a more colorful block of cheese.  I liked seeing the bubbling under the milk skin

With the milk starting to boil and not wanting to get boiling stanky milk everywhere, I stirred in the buttermilk.  Pretty cool how quickly it started clumping and separating into curds and whey.

Back in the early days of living in Boston when I had a closet for a kitchen and minimal interest in cooking, I would often use milk that looked like this in my coffee.  I hated throwing away food, even when it was clearly spoiled.  I was basically a Far Side cartoon version of a bachelor

After a few more minutes over the heat and some additional stirring, the curds clumped together more and looked ready for the next step.

At this point Trisha had been asleep for 30 minutes on the couch while Con and I yapped nonsense in the kitchen.  I think it was 9:30.  Every year since I turned 25 has shaved a half hour off my Friday nights

The pot gets poured directly into a colander lined with a couple layers of cheese cloth.

I knew it would be delicious eventually, but I was also distinctly aware of the fact that it looked like a pile of dog vomit

As soon as the cloth was somewhat handle-able, I pulled up the edges of the cheese cloth and shaped the curds into a ball.

Reminds me of the “bulldog” picture from the markets of Morocco.  Apparently my brain is permanently in the gutter

From there I twisted down the cheese cloth from the top until it was tight on the ball of curds and let it hang from the faucet for 30-45 minutes.  During that time Con and I watched the Aziz Ansari comedy special with little dialogue between us and occasionally acknowledged each other’s presence in the room.  We were pooped dudes.  Eventually I walked home with 5 bags attached to various parts of my shoulders and the buttermilk and cheese cloth sack occupying my two hands.

Once home, I took the sack of curds and placed it on a plate lined with paper towels, then put a couple heavy cast iron pans on top of it.

Really enjoy the improvised weights that homemade cheese and salumi require for proper preparation. You gotta press that sh*ts

After an additional hour or two under the cast iron pans, soaking the paper towel beneath with all the excess liquid.  I like the traditional crumbly paneer, but I was hoping to make something that had a texture a little closer to fresh buffalo mozzarella.  When I unwrapped the cheese cloth, I was happy to see it looked the way I had hoped.

I think the rough surface look was due to me tightening the cheese cloth on the curds before they had cooled significantly. I’m happy I did that, since it would have been confusing for you readers if I made something that was actually nice to look at

The paneer went into the fridge to rest overnight and firm up a bit more.

The next day I wasn’t 100% on what I wanted to do with the paneer but it appeared that my work golf outing wouldn’t get me home until 9, and we had folks coming over for Celts/Heat game 7.  So, I had to come up with something.

I may have a golf swing that looks like I had a previous debilitating back injury and a dump in my pants, but I contrast that with an outstanding golf wardrobe

I decided on an Indian-style pizza, or paneer-za, since I thought it would be easy to throw together for a halftime snack.

Once home, I started things out by throwing a package of thawed spinach, garlic, lemon juice, olive oil, crushed red pepper, and salt in the mini-prep.

Let’s get the admission of guilt out of the way.  I had Kristi pickup some packaged naan bread and a jar of tikka masala sauce at Whole Foods instead of attempting to make them from scratch.  Just didn’t have the patience to do all that during the game.  I steenk

There was a lot of flavor packed into this mini prep, but I new that the un-salted, un-aged cheese would be pretty bland so I was trying to make up for that.  I wanted the combined flavor and texture of the cheese and spinach to have the flavorful punch of sog paneer, but without any knowledge of the Indian spices required to accomplish that.  Still came out dece.

After a few pulses in each direction, I had the smooth, creamy, pesto-like consistency I was hoping for.

I once stuffed a similar strength mixture into crescent dough and served them as pinwheels which doubled over both Kristi and Conman with stomach pain in the hour that followed.  No sympathy from me, they are the same idiots that devoured them through constant complaints about their strength

The pizza stone went into the oven and I preheated to 450F.  The nan breads got a heavy smear of the spinach mixture and then slices of the paneer.

When I first saw how small the ball of paneer was, I was a little bummed out.  But thank god I didn’t make the full size of the recipe I referenced which would have been 4x as much.  This was plenty

Then a bunch of dollops of the masala sauce and into the oven.

Dupee points out regularly how stupid it is that I don’t have a pizza slide.  After a year of pretending it didn’t bug me when pizzas stuck to cookie sheets and that it was “my plan” to just put the cookie sheet on the stone, I think I am ready to get myself a slide and blame my previous mistakes on Janet or something

After 10-12 minutes in the oven, the smell was fantastic and the paneer had softened up nicely, so the paneer-zas headed from the oven to the cutting board.

The more slices cut the better, since there will always be one leftover that no one wants to eat, and it might as well be small to avoid wasting food.  I’ve got no problem with wasting a caption, though

This came together pretty well.  The naan had a nice crispy crunch without being burned, and the spinach, paneer, and masala was a very tasty combination of flavors.  I really enjoyed the texture of the paneer since it was soft and melty when hot without the stringy/stretchy texture that you associate with melted cheese.  I like the usual stringiness, but this was completely different and also enjoyable.  All in all, I would definitely make it again, but I likely don’t have an excuse to not make my own naan and masala next time.

That was fun, I’ll grill something good this weekend.

Tortillas and Carnitas

When you live walking distance from some of your best friends and write a blog about cooking weird foods, you occasionally get random edible gifts.  Like this item that I found in my mailbox one day when I got home from work.

If I hadn't been warned that something would be in my mailbox, this probably wouldn't have made it inside the front door. Sketchy tub of white stuff doesn't exactly scream "bring me into your home where your infant is waiting"

After opening, carefully, I could tell it was rendered fat of some sort.  My first guess was leftover fat from my friend Nate’s Thanksgiving turkey (because it smelled roasted), but it turned out to be lard from Nate’s wife Emily’s favorite sandwich shop Cutty’s.  Well then.

Cutty's might have pulled the old hollow-center TCBY trick with their pork fat. Spoofin', this stuff smelled slightly smoky and deliciously porky, way better than the stale candle smell I associate with lard

So, whaddya do with a big old tub of pork fat?  Ask Kristi, she has been married to me for two and a half years.  Wokka Wokka!  Be sure to tip your bartenders folks.

Anyway, I had seen a couple flour tortilla recipes a few months ago (when I was trying to work through my original purchase of 25 pounds of flour) that used lard.  They looked freaking delicious, so I ended up going with a Ree Drummond recipe that had the highest lard to flour ratio.  There was a lot of lard to go through after all.  And what better compliment to a pork flavored tortilla than some delicious carnitas as a filling?  Let’s get started.

The tortillas are pretty simple to make, but you need to prep them a few hours in advance.  2 and a half cups of flour go into a bowl with baking powder, salt, and about a half cup of lard.

Most other recipes use a lot less lard, but those recipes are for p*ssies

A few minutes with the pastry cutter later, and it looks kind of like wet sand.

Actually, less like wet sand and more like Kraft parmesan cheese. Mmmmm, Kraft parmesan cheese

Slowly stir in one cup of hot water and you end up with a wet looking dough, similar in moisture/stickiness to homemade pizza dough.  From there I tipped it out onto a lightly floured surface and kneaded in a little additional flour until the dough wasn’t sticking to the counter nearly as much.

Identical looking to my breads and pizza doughs, but smelled completely different. Replaced the smell of yeast with pork

I covered the dough ball with a clean kitchen towel and let it rest for a couple hours.

While that sat, I got started on the carnitas.  Rick Bayless, whose tweet of the link to my first post a year and a half ago got me hooked on writing this blog, had an easy to follow recipe for oven roasted carnitas.  Bake thick slices of pork shoulder covered for an hour at 375F, then cook uncovered at 450F for another 40-50 minutes to brown and crisp.  The exact opposite of the times and temperatures I usually use with pork shoulder, but you gotta trust the man.

5 pounds of picnic shoulder on sale for $5.85. Now, THAT is the best deal at the grocery store. I wish I'd bought ten of them

I only wanted to cook half of the shoulder and freeze the other half.  Meant there was some deboning and skinning to be done.

Haven't talked about my ridiculous t-shirts in a while, but this is a new one. The correct way to wear it is tucked into some light blue jeans featuring an insanely long zipper and held on with a braided leather belt. Best complimented with a pair of running sneakers and tube socks

Bone out, skin off, I was ready to cut this into two slabs.

I couldn't throw away the skin, I just couldn't, there's too much fat on there to throw away!

The slab of shoulder that I planned to cook I coated heavily with a homemade rub of salt, paprika, cayenne, garlic, and onion powder.  The skin got a sprinkle of the leftover rub as well.

Food Savers are so awesome. Ever since picking up a ton of bags at Costco I food saver stuff at a borderline-compulsive level

The skin went into a separate greased baking dish, fat side up.  I poured about a quarter inch worth of beer into the pork shoulder dish and covered with foil.  Both headed into a 375F oven for an hour.

I regret not covering the skin too. Have yet to successfully make good cracklins in my oven. Speaking of my oven, the bottom is starting to look a little like Tim's oven, which is essentially the frat house basement of the oven world. Need to clean that soon

While that cooked, Kristi and I went to work on the tortilla dough.  After a couple hours of resting, the dough was ready to be separated and shaped into individual ping pong-sized balls which would eventually be rolled out into individual tortillas.  Basically, you pull a hunk off the dough ball and roll it between your hands into a ball shape.

Role reversal!!!! Kristi and I switched places so you could actually see nice looking hands handling food for once. Plus, it proves that taking a picture of food with a person in it is way harder than Kristi makes it seem. Awful work by me

After about 5 minutes of tense teamwork (specifically, me pointing out the inconsistencies in the size of the dough balls Kristi was making while making everything from a softball to a marble myself), we had our tortilla-sized doughballs ready.

Good teamwork! Actually, they ended up being too small and we had to remake them all once I started rolling them out

While those rested for an additional hour, the cover came off the carnitas and the oven temp went up to 450F.  For the next 30 minutes, I let the liquid in the base of the shoulder pan cook off while flipping the skins often to avoid burning them too badly.  Couldn’t avoid it though.

I think that upping to the 400s was a great call for the pork, terrible call for the skins

After thirty minutes, with the skins out of the oven, and the carnitas being flipped every 5-7 minutes to get nicely browned, I started rolling out and cooking the tortillas.  Pretty easy really, just roll them out as thin as possible, peel off your counter, and throw in an un-greased nonstick pan over medium/high heat.  Well, actually, it sounds easier than it is since it definitely takes a few botched rounds before they start coming out well.

Not m'best, but the great thing about tortillas is how much can you complain about something that you can pile meat into and eat? Still did the trick, just had a couple holes and was poorly shaped

Gettin' better. I get a lot of good use out of this crappy $10 griddle I got 8 years ago, but every time I make pancakes on the weekend I wish I made them more often. You don't care about anything I just said


After some continued trial and error, I eventually got into a good groove and came out with a decent looking stack of tortillas.

Similar to pancakes, but with a lot more rendered pork fat. You know, for your health

After 4-5 turns, the carnitas came out of the oven and was easily pulled apart into chunks with a knife and tongs.  Along with the tortillas, we served some of our go-to toppings (grated Monterey Jack, salsa, and caramelized onions) and a homemade corn salsa of corn, cilantro, chopped onion, crushed red pepper, and lime juice.

The lettuce was, and always is, a total bust when presenting a taco bar like this. Lettuce is out of the Old El Paso taco night commercials from the 80s; it has no place in most decent tacos

Well, I don’t want to over-sell homemade tortillas, but these are in a completely different world than the crap I buy at the grocery store.  They have their own delicious flavor (vs being just a floury vessel), are a little thicker in a good way, and have a fresh cooked taste that is completely unmatchable.  Just awesome.

This was my fourth taco. I was breathing heavily and sweating at this point, which means I was either eating, exercising, or sitting stationary

The pork had a good texture for tacos; big chunks that were tender but also a little chewy due to the size.  The cheese and caramelized onions made the meat even more rich, but the flavors from the corn salsa was essential since it helped cut the richness of the other flavors.  Very, very good tacos.

Next week will cover some goat related cooking (for reals this time, it is the super bowl after all).