I’ve often wondered what, exactly, Little Miss Muffet was eating when she sat on her tuffet.
Curds and whey are what milk becomes when you heat it to a boil and add acid. It’s the first step in cheesemaking, and for paneer makers, it’s nearly the finish line. Simply strain the curds through a cheesecloth, let them hang for a few minutes to drain, then let them sit for a few hours under a heavy object to press out the last of the whey. Voila, you’ve made cheese.
I made my first batch of curds and whey by accident. I was enjoying a cup of tea with milk and decided to add a squeeze of lemon. Immediately, my cup filled with curds. I guess I’m no Little Miss Muffet because I made another cup of tea rather than sipping my way through that lumpy mess.
The acid you choose to curdle the milk will impact the flavor. I’ve used fresh tangerine juice, and both the curds and whey came out tasting like a Creamsicle. Meyer lemon, which is sweeter than regular lemons, makes a sweet, lemony curd and deliciously drinkable whey.
Citrus and yogurt whey are great for making oats. You can also add them to pancake batter, smoothies or drink them straight. Vinegar produces sharp, clean-tasting paneer, but the whey isn’t as drinkable. Yogurt makes the mildest, creamiest paneer.
Last week, I had some old milk in my fridge that was stressing me out. At any moment, the kids would reject it. Before that happened, I had to use it.
I found my answer at the winter farmers market, thanks to a bag of new spinach. I decided to make saag paneer, an Indian dish consisting of spinach and cheese.
My plan was to go home and make paneer from my old milk. I would cut the cheese into cubes, pan-fry them and add them to a pan of liquified, seasoned spinach. I also grabbed a bag of arugula, as proper saag paneer contains mustard leaves of some sort.
As planned, the combination of earthy, spicy veggies and meaty chunks of creamy cheese made for a satisfying and complete meal. Once you know how to make easy cheese, you’ll never have an excuse to let milk go sour again. Little Miss Muffet would be proud.
1 gallon full-fat, non-skim milk
1 cup yogurt or 6 tablespoons citrus
or white vinegar
2 cups water
1/2 teaspoon salt
Pour the milk into a thick-bottomed pot. Heat on medium, frequently scouring the bottom, ideally with a rubber spatula, to prevent buildup. When the milk is foaming and about to boil (about 20 minutes), turn off the heat and allow it to cool to room temperature. As it cools, it will separate.
While the milk is cooling, lay two pieces of cheesecloth over a colander, crossed at the bottom to make a plus sign. Set the colander over a pot or bowl.
Mix your acid with two cups of water over medium heat. When the water starts to foam, turn the heat off. Wait ten minutes. Then, while gently stirring the milk, slowly add the acid water. Leave the milk alone for a while and let it separate.
Carefully pour the mixture through the cheesecloth, filtering the curds and catching the whey below. Pull the corners of the cheesecloth together and hang the curds.
If using yogurt or citrus as your acid, set the whey aside for oatmeal or other uses. It’s full of protein and tastes really good. If using vinegar, the taste is more acquired, but you can still drink it.
After an hour, unhang the curds. Pull the cheesecloth tight and shape the cheese into a puck-shaped disk. Find a way, with the gear in your kitchen, to put weight on the cheese. I put it in a deep bowl with a gallon jug of vinegar on top.
After about two hours, unwrap your cheese and cut the disc into cubes. Fry the cubes in a thick-bottomed pan with a tablespoon of olive oil or ghee, turning occasionally until brown on a couple of sides.
5 tablespoons olive oil or ghee
1 onion, minced
2 serrano or jalapeno peppers,
2 garlic cloves, chopped
2 tablespoons ginger, chopped
2 teaspoons cumin
2 teaspoons coriander
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
2 teaspoons garam masala
1 pound fresh spinach
In a dry, heavy-bottomed pan, toast the mustard seeds, cumin and coriander over medium heat for about four minutes. Add 3 tablespoons of olive oil or ghee and the garam masala, onions, garlic, ginger and serrano peppers. Cook until the onions are translucent, then turn off the heat.
When the water boils, blanch the spinach and arugula for three minutes. Immediately move them to a bowl of ice water. When cold, drain the leaves and squeeze out the water. Put the leaves in a blender, along with the onion mixture, and liquefy. Season with salt, add water if it’s too thick and blend again.
To make saag paneer, add the spinach mixture to the pan of browned cheese. Heat to a simmer. Serve with rice and Indian-style condiments.
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