Sunday, September 26, 2010

Project Food Blog 2010 Post #2 The Classics: Palak Paneer, Murgh Makhani, and Naan

Greetings everybody!
I'm very excited to finally be writing my second post for the Project Food Blog challenge.  I really enjoyed writing the last post, and the same feeling applies to this post.  It's cathartic to write about why you do what you do, but it's very comforting to return to doing what you do.
For this post we were asked to get out of our comfort zones a bit and cook a classic dish in one of the world's many ethnic food traditions.  It's a pleasure to talk about the rest of the world, especially in terms of food, and I appreciate the opportunity to demonstrate how I go from inspiration (something I've talked about on this blog before) to a finished dish.  This time, I operated under the constraints set out by the original recipe, since we were asked to remain as accurate and traditional as possible.
When I was asked to narrow down the field of possible cuisines, I had a difficult time.  You see, I meet and work with people from some of the world's most ancient cultures and cuisines every day.
If I told you I lived in a small city of 60,000 in Southeast Iowa, you might imagine a homogenous population of European decent.  Luckily for me, Iowa City is a university town and I teach English as a Second Language.  So, I live in a place that's quite diverse and teach adult students from all over the world.  The majority of my students are from Asia, especially China, and the Middle East.  Here's a photo from one of my first classes.  I hope you can see that I get to work with some wonderful people.  (In fact, one of these students was a Korean restaurant owner and sommelier!)
We have potlucks at the end of every semester, so I've gotten to taste my share of interesting home-cooked food from all over the world. Last week was Mid-Autumn Festival and a student brought me a mooncake.  (Honestly, I liked the outside but the salted egg yolk inside was a little stinky.)
I have also been invited to food parties at our local Korean church and have gotten to try the basic dishes.
So, I began searching for inspiration by thinking about the dishes they had cooked me and their home cuisines.  I narrowed it down to Thai and Indian.  Thankfully this was an easy choice to make because I have experience with India, and frankly I'm a little intimidated by the idea of cooking Thai for Pim!
Having briefly studied Hindi while I was in college, I have always been intrigued by Indian culture.  When I think of India, I think of all kinds of spices and chilis, so I knew it was the perfect inspiration to dig into.  Everything about Indian food is warm and comforting, so it's also perfect for the beginning of fall.  Other than a few curries, I had no experience cooking Indian food, so it met the "out of comfort zone" criterion as well.
Once I'd decided, (which my dear friend Maggie anticipated on the blog's facebook page) we headed downtown to eat at India Cafe, one of the two Indian restaurants we frequent, the other being Masala, which is vegetarian.
And, in the spirit of research, we stuffed our faces.

We really enjoyed the lentils and fried potatoes.  The tandoori chicken was tender and flavorful, and the simple chickpea curry was warm but not too spicy. Interestingly, this lunch was also the first time I've ever eaten okra and liked it.
Shopping began at the bulk spice section of my local co-op.
The classics: black peppercorns, ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, coriander, and cloves.
Now I was ready to make my two favorite Indian dishes: Palak Paneer and Murgh Makhani.  I wanted to make everything I could myself, including the ghee, so I broke the process into two days, making the paneer, ghee, and naan the day before, and doing all the cooking on the second day.
Day One
I decided to make paneer, that soft fast cheese, so I bought a half gallon of local whole milk.  If you're going to try to make cheese, it's very important that you find the least processed milk you can.  Ultra-pasteurized homogenized milk simply will not work.  You can see that this is pasteurized at a low temperature and non-homogonized.  (Nutritionally, this milk is awesome too because the cows are grass fed.)
I used this video for guidance.  Heat the milk to nearly boiling, stirring constantly (otherwise you'll scald the bottom).  Once it's starting to boil, start adding 2-4 tbsp. lime juice or vinegar, stirring completely after adding each tablespoon.  You will see the milk curdle and the curds separate from the whey.
Drain the curds through a cheese cloth.  Save the whey for lactofermented vegetables or making more cheese.
Pull it up into a ball, twist the top of the cloth and flatten it, putting a plate and a weight on top to press out extra whey.  (Don't make the weight too heavy or the cheese will be dry.)
Then I made the ghee, which is clarified butter.  It's useful because it has a much higher smoke point than butter while still retaining the flavor.  You'll find it in most Indian recipes, and it's easy to make a big batch at home.  Melt butter over medium heat.  Bring to a simmer, and then let it cook on low until the liquids bubble up and the solids brown on the bottom.  You'll have to skim the top continually without disturbing the solids at the bottom.  (I followed these instructions)  Here you can see how foamy it starts out.
Ladle out the clear liquid and save it in a jar.  Eventually it will cool and become opaque.
Then I made the garam masala, which is a basic spice mix.  I used this recipe.  Before I ground everything up in the coffee grinder, we set everything out and smelled it all.  This was truly the best part of the process.  We got to smell each part before we used the whole mix, and it got us pretty darn excited to eat something cooked in all these spices.
Starting at the upper left, going left to right:
cardamom, coriander, cinnamon,
nutmeg, fenugreek, cayenne, ginger,
black pepper, cumin, and cloves.
I toasted them in a dry pan on low, let them cool, and ground them up.
Next I made the naan dough, using this recipe.  I used white whole wheat flour so the texture wasn't as good as the real stuff, but I just don't eat white flour if I can help it.
Finally, I started the chicken marinating in a yogurt mix from this recipe for the murgh makhani.  (It is essentially garam masala, yogurt, red chili pepper, and salt)
This already smelled really, really good.
Day Two
First, I pulled the chicken and dough out of the fridge so they had time to return to room temperature.  Then I got started on putting each dish together.
Murgh Makhani (Butter Chicken)
This is a very popular and classic Indian dish.  I knew I wanted to do one milk vegetarian dish and one firey meat dish, and this is the latter.
I baked the chicken at 500 degrees.  This video, which I followed, says to broil the chicken, which I would have done if my broiler weren't broken.  I would not try to grill this recipe because the yogurt really burns up.  I did it in the oven on a rack over a sheet pan.  This a local chicken that I hacked into pieces.
This is where the murgh makhani began:
And this is the ginger garlic paste that both recipes require: ginger garlic paste.  I got this from my local Asian grocery store.  This brand is a good one.
Start with some melted butter.  Fry up your spices.
Then, add the ginger garlic paste.  After that, add 3-4 pureed tomatoes and simmer.  (I pureed the chili with the tomatoes, which I think are sadly the last of the garden this year.)
Add the chopped chicken and stir.
Add 1-1.5 c. cream.
Stir it up and you're done.  This recipe is really spicy, so adjust the chilis to your taste.  I went a little overboard but was able to correct it with a little extra cream.
Palak Paneer (Spinach and Cheese)
Start by cubing up the cheese and frying it lightly in ghee.
Meanwhile, boil the spinach.
Puree the spinach.
In your pan, brown your whole spices in oil.  Then add the onions, tomato, garlic, and dry spices.  (Anything with turmeric looks beautiful in this blue pan!)
Cook this down until the onions have melted and the tomato is cooked.  Add the spinach and salt.
Add in the fried cheese.
Stir it all up, and add a splash of cream if you'd like.
The naan should be done at the last second.  I had the pizza stone in the oven with it preheated to 500 degrees, and I had the dough all rolled out and resting.

Coat each piece of naan with ghee and cumin seeds.  Throw a piece onto the stone and let it cook halfway through, and then flip it.  It should be crispy and a little bubbly.  I think I'll use this same recipe rolled out a little thicker for pita from now on.  My version, while healthier, lacked the trademark crispness and flavor that traditional naan has.  If you want the flavor and texture of the real thing, use white flour.
Cut into wedges and serve. The flavors of these dishes are complex but comforting, simultaneously challenging and satisfying (a bit like food blogging, I suppose)
So good.  The paneer dish is just a little rich and almost sweet from the spinach, while the chicken dish is spicy and thick with cream. Either of these would make a great main course.
Thank you for joining me on this little sojourn from the usual, and thank you to the judges and voters for giving me the opportunity to write this post and participate in this challenge.  I'm looking forward to reading all the other contestants' posts.  Again, if you see fit, you may vote for me to move on to the next challenge here.


Sarah said...

These are two of my all time favorites as well.

Your blog makes me long for the beautiful simplicity of Iowa City.

Tracy P said...

Yum! Great photos too!

Maggie said...

Love it. Everything Indian seems to be my favorite, with anything spinach-y at the top and chicken tikka masala was at the top of my list when I was still eating meat. Shrimp Madras has become my new go to, since I'm still doing fish and seafood - it's sooo spicy! P.S. I am totally going to make paneer soon - thanks for the great process pictures!

Ann said...

wow..i luv indian food and i enjoy preparing it. i get all the best Indian fooed recipes from its really awesome. happy cooking.

Jen @ said...

Wow making your own cheese is impressive! You have my vote. I made Chicken Tikka Masala for this challenge. Check it out:

Peggy said...

This definitely looks absolutely delicious! I'm a big fan of Indian cuisine and you've successfully made me hungry for some! Good luck in the competition!

Crystal's Cozy Kitchen said...

Looks like it was a time consuming dish - it also looks delicious!
You have my vote! Good luck.

Danielle @ Runs With Spatulas said...

Props for making everything from scratch! Good luck in round 2!

jacob's kitchen said...

Great post! Great step by step photos. I voted for you!

Good luck! =)

You can check out my PFB post at :

Lingbo said...

Oh wow! This was so comprehensive! You did an amazing job, I want to lick my screen right now. (Ummm maybe not...) Just voted for you, rockstar!

Crystal's Cozy Kitchen said...

I was sad to learn you did not continue on in PFB, I thought you nailed these!

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