I derive lots of pleasure from cooking on my days off. I feel that the lack of exhaustion from other factors really opens up my creativity. Plus, I’m usually home alone, so I can pretend to be an expert. While I cook, I give instructions to an imaginary audience, artfully chopping and stirring, pretending that the pot-watching is time-lapsed and all of the spills, hunting for things in the fridge, and other snafus are edited out.
Yeah, whatever. Like you’ve never done it.
Couple my love of experimentation with the fact that it’s July in Maine and I live in an attic, and you will find today’s experiment: Chilled Lentil Salad with Homemade Paneer (no oven necessary!).
The experimental part of this dish was the paneer. In case you’ve never had the extreme pleasure of eating paneer, it is a simple cheese common in Indian cuisine. It is often called “Indian cottage cheese” or some such, but if you hate cottage cheese, don’t be put off by that description as it is nothing like the cottage cheese you will find at the grocery store here in the U.S. I had never made paneer before today, and it turned out wonderfully. Please do not be intimidated by the prospect of making cheese in one afternoon.
I started off by making the paneer, using the fabulously detailed video and written instructions I found at Manjula’s Kitchen, a blog by (who else) Manjula (direct link to the paneer recipe at bottom of post). Manjula’s Kitchen is a fantastic blog that can teach you all sorts of things about cooking Indian food. One of my favorite things about Manjula is that her kitchen is very modest but always incredibly tidy. I find this truly inspiring and I have been working hard to be as neat and clean as Manjula while I cook. In addition, Manjula, like me, has to work with an electric range, and I feel for her.
When the active portion of paneer-making was through, I simmered some lentils in water with 3 smashed cloves of garlic and some salt, turmeric and dried ginger. I think I should have used Puy (French) lentils, because they are rumored to be better at holding their shape when cooked. But I made do with the green lentils I had on hand, and the resulting dish was nonetheless delicious.
While my cheese pressed and my lentils cooled, I whipped up a nice, zingy dressing. The recipe and measurements for this experiment in Indian-Tree hugger fusion cuisine follow below. If you read this recipe through, you will notice that it seems incredibly long. It’s not, so don’t be scared! Everything is super easy to do. I just thought I would lay it out in the same steps I used for completing it, so it takes up a little extra space.
Chilled Lentil Salad with Homemade Paneer
Follow the recipe and instructions from Manjula’s Kitchen. I used a local, organic milk because I figured it would make a nice cheese. I was right, so consider it.
I was very excited when my paneer began to look like Manjula’s:
I strained it as directed and weighted it with a cast iron skillet.
I used approximately 3/4 of the resulting paneer for the salad. I gently crumbled it into large chunks.
3 Cups water
1 ½ Cups lentils
1 tsp. Kosher salt
½ tsp. Turmeric
½ tsp. Dried, powdered ginger
3 cloves garlic, smashed
Bring to a boil over high heat, then drop down to medium-low heat and simmer for 30-45 minutes, until the lentils are tender but still just a bit toothsome. Drain and chill. Remove garlic cloves. I spread my lentils on a plate to help them cool faster.
Juice of 1 ½ limes*
½ tsp. Freshly ground cumin
½ tsp turmeric
2 tsp. Fresh ginger**
2 tsp. Kosher salt
½ tsp. Red chile flakes (I used a teaspoon, but I love all things spicy. If you love all things spicy, follow my lead!)
2 small cloves garlic, minced
Additional fresh ingredients, chopped to approximate size of lentils:
1 tomato, seeded
1 cup red onion
Stir it all together and chill for 30 minutes minimum. Eat! I ate mine with a bit of pita, which is not Indian but quite delicious.
* I know that the fancy chefs on the television squeeze citrus halves upturned, using their fingers to keep seeds out of the food. I always feel like I’m wasting all kinds of juice on my hands when I do that, so I usually juice citrus halves cut side down, over a small mesh strainer. If you want to use the finger-filter method, go right ahead, but you might have to adjust the lime juice.
** I recommend using a Microplane grater for the ginger, because that is the simplest way to mince it. However, as a frequent Rambo cook with a limited selection of kitchen tools, I fully understand that not everyone owns a Microplane. If you do not, you have two options. 1. Use any grater intended to finely shred things. 2. Peel the ginger, then slice thinly against the grain, using a large knife. Chop slices until ginger is minced.