Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Multi-Taskers: Cheese Substitutions + Saag Paneer Recipe

More on "culinary zeitgeist."  

Much in my previous substitution post, it looks like substitutions come in threes:

India: Paneer
Italy: Ricotta Salata
Cyprus: Haloumi

(Possible addition to this discussion US: Cheese curds  I say possible because I do not know if cheese curds actually melt. I will experiment the next time I encounter cheese curds while shopping.)

I fully embrace what I call "multi-taskers" in the kitchen. They make life easier.  I've been cutting back on how many food stores I go to on my errand day, just to make my life easier, save time and effort. My local Korean grocer supplies everything I could possibly need--except paneer. 

The last time I went shopping, I was looking for paneer, none to be found. Same thing with Haloumi (which was out of stock at the Armenian market last time I went there). However, what H-mart DID have was Ricotta Salata. A hard pressed, dry, salty version of ricotta.

Remembering what I know of the paneer making process, I know it's got some similarities--though it's a smidge tangy and definitely saltier. I solicited the opinion of Niv over at Panfusine for her thoughts on cheese substitutions, as my discussion with her was regarding making saag paneer quiches with the leftovers. 

I had enough information from the chat to know the ricotta salata would work. Rather than saving it for the quiches, I used it for the saag paneer, and I will say that it did not melt, and I held off on adding any additional salt, as the cheese was salty enough!

Now to backtrack a bit...

While in India in January, Maharajah's cousin provided me with her recipe/formula for saag paneer which was so RIDICULOUSLY simple, I thought to myself, how could it possibly be tasty. Her version has something like 5 ingredients, thereabouts, and I felt as if she were playing a prank on me.

Her ingredients were:

Chile pepper

That's it. Oh, and a little oil to cook the onion a bit. And no fancy techniques or spices. Not even turmeric. Grinds the onion with the chile and cooks that a bit in oil, then throws the washed spinach and diced tomato on top. Cover, and cook until spinach starts to wilt. Then puree that, put back in pan and toss in cubed paneer. DONE. Too simple. 

Anyway, here's my recipe for what I made this morning, however, mine is a bit more stripped down because I outright FORGOT about the onion. Oh, and no chile pepper in this, since Maharajah is preferring less heat these days (and I also forgot to mince it up). Kizmet!


1 T Neutral oil
1 tsp Jeera 
2 tsp garlic paste
1 Big bag fresh spinach (pureed with enough water to make it loose, but not watery)
20 Grinds black pepper
1 package Ricotta Salata (roughly 6-8 oz?)
Half and Half


I fried up the jeera until it was starting to turn golden brown and fragrant in the oil. I then added the garlic paste, and cooked about a minute until it started to turn golden. I then added the spinach puree, and lowered heat to a simmer, while I diced up the ricotta salata. I stirred the cheese cubes into the gently bubbling spinach sauce, and then added, like I said, about 20 grinds of black pepper. I let it cook maybe if that, 5 minutes more, and added a pat of butter (like the French chefs do to finish a sauce), and about 1-2 T of half and half to round out the saag mixture.  

Thinking it needed something "more," I took my ginger root out of the freezer, and shaved a bit of it into the sauce with a microplaner (thank you, Chef Roger, you ENABLER, YOU!). I also like a particular consistency to my sauces/gravies/curries, and there is a magical thickening agent I use, which I'll keep to myself, but use your judgment and add your thickener of choice (or none, YMMV!)

The lack of excessive spices accomplishes a couple of things:

1. Keeps the recipe SIMPLE.
2. Keeps the vibrant green of the spinach in tact. (Sorry, no photo this time!)
3. Keeps the recipe from tasting like EVERYTHING ELSE.  

Sometimes, I think, when you intensely season EVERYTHING, then EVERYTHING you cook tends to get lost--but if you have one intensely seasoned thing, and another item seasoned more subtle, there's a nice interplay, where both items you serve can shine in their own right.  

I made this up first thing this morning before leaving for work, as the Maharjah is working from home--so let's see what he thinks of it! 

Final analysis: Delicious but the ricotta salata adds an obvious tangy aspect to the saag, which in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing, but if you are expecting ultra smooth, luxurious on the tongue saag paneer, you might be surprised by the tang, so in hindsight, perhaps the haloumi would have worked better.

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