The Quest for Healthy Cheese

12 Aug

I’ve never made cheese before but it’s something I’ve always wanted to try.  To me, homemade cheese has always been something for the pros… certainly not for your basic home cook like myself, I thought.  But after seeing a simple recipe for paneer (Indian cheese) in a recent issue of Chatelaine magazine, I finally had the confidence to try it out.

According to the oh-so-wise Wikipedia, paneer is a fresh cheese common in South Asian cuisine.  It is made by curdling heated milk with an acid such as lemon juice or vinegar.  The result is an unsalted, unaged, non-melting, farmer’s cheese.

Almost all recipes that I stumbled across called for 2 litres of whole milk (3.3% milk fat) and 1/4 cup of lemon juice.  That’s it.  Determined to make a healthier version, I decided to try making paneer with skim milk.  Several websites indicated that it could be done but that the result would be a more rubbery and grainy cheese.  Sounds yummy, right?!?  I figured the texture might actually be palatable since paneer is usually sauteed in oil first and then added to dishes containing TONS of wonderful Indian spices.  Plus, I couldn’t justify making paneer with whole milk knowing how much healthier it could be if skim milk were used.  (My estimates indicate that paneer made with skim milk contains half as many calories as full-fat paneer and virtually no fat, compared to 16 grams of mostly saturated fat per half cup serving of whole milk paneer)

The basic steps in making paneer are as follows:

  1. Bring 2 litres of milk to a boil over medium heat
  2. Add 1/4 cup of lemon juice and stir while curds separate from the whey
  3. Pour mixture into a cheesecloth-lined colander and gently rinse with cold water to remove lemon flavour
  4. Gather ends of cheesecloth and twist ball of cheese to squeeze out any remaining whey.  Tie cheesecloth to sink faucet and let hang for 5 minutes.
  5. Place on a plate, set another plate on top, and weigh down with cans or a heavy pot.  Refrigerate for 20 minutes.
  6. Unwrap cheese and voila!

If you want to try this at home, follow this recipe from Aarti Sequiera which gives much more detailed instructions.  As a heads up, don’t be disappointed when you are left with a seemingly teeny tiny bundle of cheese.  Typically, 8 cups of milk yields 2 cups (12 ounces) of paneer.  I was only left with 7.5 ounces, a mere 63% yield.  I would have failed if this were a chemistry lab!  Perhaps it was because I didn’t allow the milk to completely curdle, or maybe it was because I used skim milk?  Who knows…

Ball O' Cheese in the making

Voila! Homemade Healthy Cheese

There are a ton of Indian dishes that use paneer, my favourite being Saag Paneer (also known as Palak Paneer, or Spinach with Paneer).  This recipe (also from Aarti) uses plain low-fat yogurt instead of cream… my kind of cooking!  It’s a bit time consuming but the final product was WELL worth the effort.  Spicy spinach-y goodness… yum yum.  Make sure you have naan bread on hand– it’s the perfect accompaniment to this dish!

Saag Paneer

Saag Paneer:  Spinach with Indian Cheese   (adapted from Aarti Sequiera)

1 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
1/4 tsp salt
1-1/2 tbsp canola oil, divided
8 to 12 ounces (1.5 to 2 cups) of paneer or firm tofu, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
1 package (300 g) frozen spinach, thawed
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 (1 inch thumb) ginger, peeled and minced (approx 1 tbsp)
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 tsp garam masala
2 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp ground cumin
1/2 cup plain low-fat yogurt

  1. In a medium bowl, whisk together turmeric, cayenne pepper, salt, and 1 tbsp canola oil.  Add paneer cubes and toss gently, taking care not to break up paneer.  Set aside.
  2. Puree spinach in a food processor until smooth.  Alternatively, spinach can be chopped very finely.
  3. Heat a large non-stick skillet over medium heat, spray with non-stick spray, and cook paneer for 5 or so minutes, until lightly browned.  Transfer to a plate and set aside.
  4. Heat remaining 1/2 tbsp oil.  Add the onion, garlic, and ginger and saute over medium heat for 15 minutes, or until the mixture is evenly toffee-coloured.  Add a couple of tablespoons of water as the mixture cooks if it looks like it is drying out or burning.
  5. Add the garam masala, coriander, and cumin.  Sprinkle a bit of water to prevent the spices from burning. Cook, stirring often, for 3 to 5 minutes.
  6. Add the spinach and mix well.  Add a bit of salt and stir in 1/2 cup of water. Cook for 5 minutes.
  7. Turn off the heat and slowly add the yogurt, stirring continuously.  Add the paneer.  Turn heat back on to medium and cook, covered, for 5 minutes.  Serve warm.

Makes 3 servings.  Per serving (approximate): 220 kcal, 8 g fat, 350 mg sodium, 3 g fibre

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