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The Ultimate Crowdpleaser: Matar Paneer

“I have lost count of how many times I have made khichdi in quarantine,” Priya Krishna posted on Instagram in mid-April, and pretty soon after, we could say the same in our house. The vegetarian, pantry-friendly rice and mung bean dish became so universally loved, it was clear that we needed to pick up a copy of the New York Times and Bon Appétit writer’s cookbook, Indian-ish

It’s my favorite kind of cookbook, the kind where the recipes are so interwoven with the author’s family kitchen that it’s impossible to resist pulling up a chair right alongside them, ordering spices (like asafetida) and driving to markets a few towns over to procure ingredients you might not find at your local grocery (like paneer). Krishna grew up in Dallas, and the word “Indian-ish” describes her mother’s cooking, i.e. “60 percent traditional Indian, 40 percent Indian-plus-something-else, mostly vegetarian” as well as her identity, “part of two worlds but never fully part of one.” The book itself is effectively a love letter to her mother, Ritu, a full-time working mom who grew up in India, moved to America, traveled the world as an airline software programmer, and brought all she learned back to the family dinner repertoire. In spite of Krishna’s current culinary pedigree, you can tell that none of these recipes were dreamed up in a studio or at a test kitchen. “The dishes in this book are specifically built to be an accessible entry point into Indian cuisine,” she writes. “Mainly because my mom is busy, and does not have the time to slave away at the stove all day.” I love them mostly because they’re everyday dishes, geared towards everyday working kitchens…

…like mine! I dove right in, and immediately landed on her Matar Paneer, which Krishna describes as “the ultimate party dish.” Traditionally the mild-flavored paneer is fried, but from her mother, Krishna learned it’s much more balanced when the cheese simply simmers in the tomato sauce. About that sauce: LOOK AT THE COLOR — when you whirl the spiced tomatoes in a blender with ghee (or olive oil) it turns the most resplendant orange. And I used regular old Roma tomatoes from the supermarket — nothing heirloom or peak-season. (Krishna says even in the middle of the winter, it’s better to use fresh tomatoes than canned ones.) Next up: Chickpea Flour Green Beans, Pesarattu (lentil pancakes), then Priya’s Dal because it looks so easy (she recommends making it in an Instant Pot) and because, as she writes, eating it with rice “brings me the deepest level of joy.”

Matar Paneer
As soon as you cube the paneer, put it in warm water until you are ready to cook it—this will make sure it doesn’t dry out. Just be sure to drain it before adding it to the pan. Also, ghee is available in most supermarkets, but to make your own: “Melt a stick of butter over medium-low heat in a medium saucepan, turn the heat off, skim the white stuff off the top, and you’ll be left with pure ghee.” Serve with rice or roti. (Serves 4)

¼ cup + 2 tablespoons ghee or olive oil, divided
4 green cardamom pods, or 1 teaspoon ground cardamom (freshly ground is best)
2 tablespoons coriander seeds
1 small yellow onion, roughly chopped
1 tablespoon roughly chopped fresh ginger
1 small Indian green chile or serrano chile, halved lengthwise and stem removed
7 medium Roma tomatoes, roughly chopped
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
2 bay leaves
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
¼ teaspoon asafetida (optional, but really great)
1½ teaspoons kosher salt, plus more if needed
8 ounces paneer, cut into ½-inch cubes (1 cup; see note)
1 cup fresh or frozen shelled sweet peas
½ cup chopped fresh cilantro (stems and leaves), for garnish

In a large skillet over medium heat, warm ¼ cup of the ghee. Add the cardamom and coriander and cook, stirring, for about 1 minute, until they have lightly browned. Stir in the onion, ginger, and chile and cook until the onion is translucent, 5 to 6 minutes. Increase the heat to high, add the tomatoes, and cook, stirring, until the tomatoes are wilted, 5 to 6 minutes more. Remove from the heat and let cool to room temperature.

Transfer the cooled tomato mixture to a blender and blend into a chunky sauce—it should resemble baby food. If the mixture isn’t blending well, add a few drops of water to get it going. Set the sauce aside.

In the same pan over medium-high heat, warm the remaining 2 tablespoons ghee. Add the cumin seeds and cook until they turn a medium shade of brown, about 1 minute max. Reduce the heat to low and add the bay leaves, turmeric, and asafetida (if using). Pour the sauce into the pan, add the salt, and mix well. Add the paneer, peas, and 1 cup water, cover, and cook for 10 minutes, or until the peas are warmed through and have nicely comingled with the paneer and Serve sauce. Taste and adjust the salt, if needed. Garnish with the cilantro.