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By Re-invent the paneer and rustle up the most unusual and delicious fare, says Rahul Verma Courtesy: Chef Pradeep Rozario K.K.'s Fusion, Calcutta Photographs by Rashbehari Das
  • Published 2.08.09
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You know that popular game, don’t you, about the 10 books that you would like to take with you to a deserted island? I don’t have a list of ten such books, but I do have record of things that I don’t want to take to a deserted island, or anywhere else for that matter. On top of that list is paneer.

Okay, I know many of you like paneer, and I have nothing against those who enjoy their muttar paneer, or kadhai paneer or chhanaar dalna. The problem is that I have developed a mental block when it comes to cottage cheese. I have been cooking it for so long that I don’t know what to do with it anymore.

When my vegetarian friends come over for a meal, the easiest dish to cook for them is paneer. I sauté onions, add the cottage cheese to it and some tomatoes — and the dish is ready. Sometimes I put in peas, and occasionally chopped capsicum. My vegetarian friends don’t complain, for there’s nothing much you can do with paneer.

That’s what I used to think. But Chef Pradeep Rozario, of K.K.’s Fusion in Calcutta, has proved me wrong. He insists that there’s a lot you can do with this bland milk product. He uses paneer to cook up dishes like as lasagnas, fondues and sushi rolls with wasabi mayonnaise. He steams cottage cheese and serves it with avocado salsa. Suddenly, the paneer doesn’t boring anymore!

Take his cottage cheese a la Kiev. I’ve eaten and enjoyed more than my share of chickens a la Kiev — The Metropolis in Paharganj, Delhi, makes the dish really well — but this is the first that I have heard something called cottage cheese a la Kiev (see recipe).

Clearly, there’s more to paneer than meets the eye. In Delhi — and all over the north, in fact — the paneer has been standardised. In my childhood, you only ate paneer when there was an occasion like a wedding. Now, if you go to any roadside dhaba, you’ll hear the waiter reel off the names of a dozen or so paneer dishes without taking a breath. Even the smallest dhabas will offer paneer tikka, shahi paneer, kadhai paneer, saag paneer, paneer do pyaza, paneer kofta and so on. And you know what the irony is? They all taste almost the same.

But chef Rozario dresses up the paneer in such a way that it’s difficult to recognise it. And he stresses that it doesn’t have to be a purely vegetarian dish. Its taste is so mild that it can go well with anything from prawns to chicken. So the chef offers a steamed cottage cheese and prawn with steamed rice, which is a dish cooked with Thai spices. Or you can barbeque sea food with cottage cheese and serve it with fried rice. Chef Rozario also cooks scrambled paneer with pink salmon.

I suppose that one of these days, a dish like his cottage cheese bacon rolls will form a regular part of the average Indian menu. After all, who would have known, some five centuries ago, that the paneer would become so much a part of our kitchens? The Portuguese introduced us to chhaina, or cottage cheese, and revolutionised the sweetmeat industry of Bengal — to say nothing of the dhabas.

But now it seems that the paneer is re-inventing itself. Throw away the recipes of all those old tasteless dishes that we got stuck with. Welcome the new paneer — it comes with the right accessories and looks. And, wonder of wonders, it has even managed to soup up its taste.

Cottage cheese lasagna

(to serve four)

Ingredients
• 150gm cottage cheese cut into thin slices

For the filling:
½ cup grated cottage cheese • 2tbsp olive oil • 2 cloves chopped garlic • 1 finely chopped onion • 2 tbsp chopped celery • 400g chopped tomato 75gm butter • 1tsp finely chopped parsley • 2 or 3 basil leaves • 1 cubed carrot l60gm chopped beans • 50g chopped capsicum • salt and pepper, to taste • 2tbs grated parmesan cheese

For the sauce:
• 3 medium-sized tomatoes • 60 ml white wine • 1chopped onion • 1tbs chopped garlic

Method

For the sauce, blanch the tomatoes in boiling water. Remove the skin, deseed and finely chop them. In a pan, sauté chopped onion and garlic till transparent. Add tomatoes and stir. Pour wine and simmer for 20 minutes. Add seasoning.

Now parboil the vegetables. Drain them. Sauté the onion, garlic and celery in olive oil. Add tomatoes, herbs and parboiled vegetables. Cook till they’re soft and the sauce is thick. Add the grated cottage cheese and simmer till the cheese and vegetable are coated together. Finish off with one tablespoon of grated parmesan cheese.

Put a layer of the cooked cottage cheese and vegetables on a serving platter. Cover with a sheet of cottage cheese. Add more filling, and then layer with cottage cheese. Repeat, ending with cottage cheese. Coat with tomato sauce. Sprinkle the remaining parmesan on top and bake till golden.

Cottage cheese a la Kiev

(to serve two)

Ingredients

• 250gm cottage cheese • 50gm hard butter • 1tsp chopped parsley • 1tsp oregano • 1tsp salt and pepper • 100g bread crumbs • 50g flour ½ cup water • 1 cup oil

Method

Grate the cottage cheese in a bowl. With a spatula, mix the cheese along with oregano and chopped parsley and make a smooth paste. Put half of the mixture on a sheet of butter paper and flatten it like a thick escalope. Place the butter in the centre of the mixture with some parsley and fold it into a cylinder. Remove the paper. Make a batter with flour and water. Put the cheese cylinder in the batter and coat it with bread crumbs. Chill in refrigerator for 20 minutes. Just before serving, heat the oil in a non-stick frying pan and fry the cottage cheese a la Kiev until golden brown. Serve with steamed rice and sauté-ed potatoes, or vegetables and mashed potatoes