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Indian cheese, known as paneer or chenna, is a delicacy that all Indians- particularly northerners-love. Its use in the preparation of savory dishes is limited, but the few dishes created with it are absolute masterpieces. The most popular, without doubt, is Matar Paneer--moist pieces of sautéed cheese with sweet green peas wrapped in a luscious red sauce bursting with the fragrance of spices and fresh coriander leaves. Matar Paneer, a classic North Indian dish, is popular with vegetarians and nonvegetarians alike. The flavor and texture of the paneer are of prime importance here. The cheese should be sweet and fresh-smelling; it should feel firm to the touch but not hard; it should be moist but not wet; and finally, its texture should be close and compact, not porous. (If the paneer is dry and too solid, the cheese pieces will taste hard and rubbery, and the sauce will not penetrate the paneer, leaving it with a bland taste. If the paneer is too wet and loose-textured, it will not hold its shape, but will fall apart while it is being fried, disintegrating into the oil.) 

For 6 Persons 

8 oz. Indian Cheese (panèer) made with 8 cups milk and cut into½ by ½ by 1½/-inch pieces

12 tablespoons usli ghee, or Indian vegetable shortening, or light vegetable oil

2 cups finely chopped onions

1 teaspoon finely chopped garlic

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh ginger root

2 teaspoons ground coriander

1 teaspoon turmeric

¼-½ teaspoon each red and black pepper

1 teaspoon paprika

2 cups finely chopped or pureed fresh ripe tomatoes, or 1½ cups canned tomatoes with their juice, chopped

1½ cups shelled fresh green peas, or 1 ten-ounce package frozen peas, defrosted

2 teaspoons Kosher salt

2 teaspoons garam masala (p. 38)

4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh coriander leaves (or substitute 2 tablespoons dry coriander leaves)

Spread the paneer pieces on a piece of waxed paper and leave them to dry slightly for ½ hour. 

Heat 3 tablespoons of the ghee over medium heat in a large heavy-bottomed pan, preferably one with a non-stick interior. When the ghee is hot, add cheese pieces. Keep a saucepan lid or spatter screen handy, since the moisture from the cheese may be released explosively, causing tiny particles of cheese to fly all over. Dusting the paneer pieces with a little flour prevents splattering. Fry the cheese, turning and tossing often to prevent sticking and burning, until lightly seared (about 5 minutes). Transfer the pieces to a bowl. (The paneer should be fried in batches so that there is ample room in the pan for turning them without fear of their breaking.)

Add the remaining ghee to the pan, and increase the heat to high. Add onions, and fry until they turn light brown (about 5 minutes), stirring constantly so that they do not burn. Add garlic and ginger, and fry for an additional 2 minutes. Add coriander, turmeric, red and black pepper, and paprika, all at once. Stir rapidly for a moment, and immediately add tomatoes. Cook until the mixture thickens to a pulpy sauce and the fat begins to separate (about 10 minutes), stirring often. 

Add 2 1/2 cups hot water, and bring the sauce to a boil. Reduce heat to medium, and cook the sauce, covered, for 20 minutes. Cool the sauce briefly. Then puree it in an electric blender or food processor, leaving the sauce a little coarse so that it has a certain texture. 

Return the sauce to the pan. Add peas, salt, and the fried cheese, along with 1/2 cup hot water, and bring the sauce to a boil. Reduce heat to medium and simmer, covered until the peas are cooked through (about 15 minutes for fresh peas and 5 for frozen). Turn off heat and let the dish rest, covered, for an hour before serving. When ready to serve, heat thoroughly. Fold in garam masala and chopped coriander leaves. Check for salt, and serve.  

Note: This dish tastes best if made a couple of hours before serving. The resting allows the flavors of the different ingredients to blend and mellow. It may be refrigerated for up to 3 days without loss of flavor. To reheat, gently simmer over low heat until warmed through.

Reprinted with permission from Classic Indian Cooking by Julie Sahni.

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Julie Sahni is a chef, cooking teacher and author. She is the owner of Julie Sahni's Indian Cooking School, which was nominated for an IACP award, and has served on the faculty of New York University's and Boston University's culinary arts programs. Her cookbooks include Classic Indian Cooking and Savoring India: Recipes and Reflections on Indian Cooking. She frequently writes for national newspapers and food and travel magazines, and also appears on TV.