I love the classic northern Indian dish of peas and cheese but I seldom order it at a restaurant. I can’t eat a lot of fresh dairy and frankly, it is often lackluster, especially at inexpensive lunch buffets where there’s more sauce than sweet peas and rich fried cheese.
My solution is to make it at home with soy paneer (tofu). The little fried cubes of tofu soak up the spicy sweet sauce very well. This week, I discovered a frozen bag of San Marzano tomato puree from last summer and a partially used bag of frozen peas. Those finds made for the perfect excuse to prepare a batch of matar (mutter) soy paneer.
We had it for lunch with another frozen discovery – papery thin Middle Eastern flatbread. (Yes, I'm trying to clean out the freezer's 2012 inventory.) Wheat tortillas reheated over an open flame would have been my other choice; it’s a decent shortcut for chapati.
A few tips:
Want to cut down on prep time? Use a mini processor for the onion. I hand chopped these other aromatics but you could do them in the machine too. Just remember to chop up the ingredients in large pieces before throwing them into the processor. You'll get more uniform results. The chile and ginger can be chopped a day ahead, but not the onion.
If you’ve made lots of Indian food, you know the importance of cooking up 'burnt onions'. Okay, they don't get to the point of being nearly burnt. On the other hand, they’re not caramelized either. The onions are cooked over relatively high heat until deep brown. That’s part of the brilliance of how Indian flavors get built. Taking the time to do this makes a huge difference in developing deep, savory flavors.
I typically finish this dish with homemade garam masala (see Asian Dumplings for a recipe) but this time things seemed to be just dandy the way they were. Maybe it was the tomato? I don’t know. I just left it out but understandably, it would give the dish a spice lift at the end.
If you have time, let the matar soy paneer rest for 10 minutes before serving. That allows the flavors to coalesce. Or, make it a day ahead and add the cilantro right before serving.
Matar Soy Paneer
Yields: 2 to 4
- 14 to 16 ounces (390 to 450 g) firm or extra-firm tofu
- 3 tablespoons canola oil
- 1 1/2 teaspoons cumin seeds
- 1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
- 1 1/2 tablespoons ground coriander
- 3/4 teaspoon turmeric
- 2 moderately hot green chiles, such as Serrano, finely chopped
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh ginger
- 1 1/2 cups (360 ml) crushed tomato or tomato puree
- About 1 1/2 cups (360 ml) water
- 1 1/2 cups (7 oz / 210 g) frozen peas, fully or partially thawed
- 3/4 teaspoon garam masala (optional)
- 2 to 3 tablespoons chopped cilantro
- Cut the tofu into cubes about 3/4 inch (2 cm) big. Put into a bowl. Put into a shallow bowl. Dissolve 1 teaspoon salt in 2 cups (480 ml) of very hot water, then pour over the tofu. Set aside to soak for 15 minutes, then drain. Transfer the tofu to a non-terry dishtowel or double layer of paper towels placed atop a plate. Drain for 10 to 15 minutes.
- Heat a medium skillet over medium-high heat and add about half of the oil. Blot the tofu cubes dry, then panfry them in two batches for about 5 minutes, until light golden on 3 or 4 of the sides. Turn the tofu with chopsticks or a spatula during the frying and aim is to add a bit of character and depth to the tofu, not crisp it all over. Transfer to a plate, leaving the oil behind, and set aside. (You can do this a couple days in advance!)
- Lower the heat to medium-high and add the remaining oil. When hot, add the cumin seeds and stir for about 15 seconds until they’ve darkened. Dump in the onion and cook for about 8 minutes, stirring, until deep brown. Add the coriander, turmeric, chile, and ginger. Cook until aromatic and no longer raw smelling. Add the tomato, water and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Bring to a vigorous simmer and cook for 5 minutes to concentrate.
- Add the tofu cubes and cook for 5 minutes to allow the flavor to get absorbed. Add the peas and garam masala (if using), then heat until hot. Taste, season with extra salt, if needed. Stir in the cilantro, then transfer to a serving bowl.
More Indian recipes and tofu treats:
- Rava Dosa Semolina Crepes with Chile Recipe
- Northern Indian Egg Curry (Anda Masala)
- Crispy Scallion Tofu and Rice Cakes
- Salt and Pepper Tofu
- Fried Tofu and Egg Pancake