While I have not officially stated this, it must be pretty apparent that this is a vegetarian food blog. Having been born and raised a vegetarian, this is very much a part of my identity, albeit one that I rarely think about anymore. This is partly because I instinctively make food choices that fit my vegetarian lifestyle while satisfying my nutritional (and hedonic) needs. But this is also partly because I'm blessed to live in a part of the world where vegetarianism, while not the norm, is certainly a prevalent part of the culture. Viva Pacific Northwest! If anything is confusing to people around here, it's the difference between being a vegetarian and a vegan. In fact, just the other day, I was ordering food at the Thai cart on Marquam Hill in Portland, Oregon, when a guy in line behind me, overhearing my questions to the cart lady about vegetarian options, asked me this very question about how a vegetarian is different from a vegan. I explained to him that a vegetarian does not consume animals, while a vegan would also not consume substances derived from animals such as milk or eggs. He then proceeded to inform me that he himself was vegan!!!! So, why exactly did he not know the difference between vegetarianism and veganism? Was he testing me? I'm still so confused!
Anyhow, this whole exchange got me thinking a bit more about the nature of my vegetarianism. While I don't eat meat or anything cooked with meat-containing sauces and pastes, there are certain products that I know to contain animal ingredients that I eat anyway – I suspect that this is true for a vast majority of vegetarians, either due to ignorance and/or ambivalence on the topic. For instance, I do consume vitamin pills, medications, and supplements, many of which contain gelatin, which is derived from cow bones. I also consume, and enjoy, a vast variety of cheeses. I know what you're thinking – cheese is made of milk, which is not off-limits for vegetarians. Yes, but cheese making also usually involves the use of rennet, an enzyme that turns said milk into various forms of gooey, sharp, tangy, delicious cheese products. And this rennet is often derived from bovine stomachs, usually from young calves! In fact, apparently the first cheese ever made was apparently due to the accidental curdling of milk stored in bags made of goats' stomachs and the subsequent discovery of the deliciousness (and longer shelf-life) of this curdled milk.
These days, however, there are many different "vegetarian" rennets available on the market, partially due to the need to offer a product suitable for vegetarians, but mostly because of the lower cost of non-animal rennets. In fact, the majority of industrially produced cheese in the United States uses microbial rennet in cheese-making. European cheeses, sadly, are still largely produced using animal rennets. I wonder if this is due to an unwillingness to depart from tradition, or if the use of specific rennets actually affects the taste of the cheese. (Cheese experts, please weigh in.) In addition to microbial rennets, there are many different substances that have been used around the world to coagulate milk. The most notable among these is the use of an acid such as citric acid from lemons or acetic acid in vinegar to split milk. Cream cheese is made using this acid coagulation method, as is the popular Indian cheese paneer. Considering that a large part of the world's vegetarian population is concentrated in India, it is indeed fortunate that we have a method to produce a delectable cottage cheese without using rennet.
In the past, I've posted my favorite method of making paneer at home. Alternatively, should you be lucky enough to have an Indian grocery store nearby, paneer is readily available in the refrigerated or frozen sections of these stores. While you're there, I would also recommend that you take a look at the vast array of spices and pastes that are available, as many of these are not easily found at other stores or are much less expensive in South Asian stores.
Paneer is extremely versatile, and while it looks somewhat like tofu, thanks to its higher fat content, it lends itself well to flavoring and has a much fuller mouth-feel than tofu. (While I do love tofu, seemingly no spice or marinade ever penetrates its dense structure to flavor it from the inside out, which makes it a poor choice for Indian cooking, with a few exceptions.) A common paneer dish in Indian restaurants is something called Paneer Jalfrezi. This is usually a spicy, dry curry cooked with large chunks of vegetables, tomatoes, paneer, and spices like cumin, coriander, and chilis. Often, in restaurants, cream is added the dish to temper the spiciness of the curry. I like to make a home-style version of this curry to spice up a weeknight meal, as it's very flavorful, a departure from the ordinary, and can be cooked in a single pan in under 30 minutes! I generally just throw together any vegetables that I have on hand, but I particularly like mushrooms and zucchini if I have them. Other options that have worked well are red, yellow, orange and green bell peppers, creamy white heads of cauliflower, and nutty halves of Brussels sprouts. I also omit the cream, as this flavorful curry really doesn't need it. I have used tofu in place of paneer, and while this is not nearly as flavorful, it is arguably a lot healthier.
My recipe for Paneer Jalfrezi follows below, but this is really a dish that has tons of room for creativity and is very forgiving of deviations from the recipe. It goes very well with basmati rice or with rotis, a type of unleavened Indian flat bread.
Vegetables -- Variable, but try the following for a start:
2 Zucchini or summer squash, cut into 2 inch by 1 inch pieces
1 Bell pepper of any color, cut into large chunks
½ Cauliflower, cut into medium to large florets
10 large button mushrooms, quartered
1 red onion, cut into large chunks; do not omit
3 large tomatoes, cut into large chunks; do not omit
8-10 oz. firm paneer, cut into 2 inch cubes
For the curry:
4 cloves of garlic ground with 2 inches of ginger root and 3 green chilis
2 dried red chiils (optional)
1 t turmeric powder (optional)
1 T ground cumin, or more to taste
1 T ground coriander, or more to taste
1 T cumin seeds
Salt, to taste
2 T lemon juice, 3 T chopped coriander leaves
Add 1T canola (or vegetable) oil to a sauté pan. Once heated, add paneer pieces and sauté till light brown on all sides. Keep aside.
In the same pan, heat 2T oil and add cumin seeds and turmeric to oil.
When cumin starts to splutter, toss in onions and allow to brown.
Add the ground cumin and coriander, as well as the dried red chilis.
Add the ginger/garlic/chili paste and allow this to cook for a few minutes.
Now add the cauliflower, zucchini, peppers, and mushrooms, pausing a few minutes after each addition to allow veggies to cook slightly. Do not overcook. Unlike most Indian curries, the veggies in this dish taste best if they're still slightly crunchy at the end.
Finally, add the tomatoes and salt and allow the tomatoes to wilt slightly. Don't overcook to the point where tomatoes become soggy.
Toss in the browned paneer, being careful not to break the paneer cubes too much as you stir your curry.
Cook slightly longer so the paneer can absorb the flavors of the pot.
Taste the curry and add more spices or salt as desired.
Garnish with a squeeze of lemon juice and chopped coriander leaves. Serve hot (in a copper pot).