One of the gracious bovines that provided the milk for this recipe.
If you were expecting a cranberry recipe today (as previously promised), I do apologize. I still have two tasty cranberry concoctions to share with you later this week. I’m just taking a small detour to talk about making cheese. As those insurance commercials prophesize, “life comes at you fast.” I found myself hurrying off to my parents’ farm this weekend in central Pennsylvania, helping my mom tackle a few of those undesirable challenges life occasionally throws at us. She’s very limited in what she can eat at the moment, so much so that a quarter cup of soup is a major meal and a small triumph. Let me tell you, it’s made me think a good deal about how much food, especially any overly-processed stuff, I put into my mouth every day without even thinking. If only I had the will power to always eat the way I know I should eat.
Ah, to have the life of a barn cat, curled up in the hay all day.
Being within a stone’s throw of a hundred head of milking cows, wholesome hormone-free raw milk was obviously the best “straight from the farm” ingredient within my reach this weekend. Since cooking helps me worry less, I got busy in my mom’s kitchen with one of the world’s ancient preservation methods. Curdling raw milk to form cheese is essentially a simplified form of pickling, which greatly increases its “shelf life.” Cheese making, besides being an interesting activity for a gloomy winter’s day, is a great way to foster a deeper appreciation for what’s going into your mouth. By slowing down to make the cheese myself, I became noticably more attentive to the resulting veggie and cheese stir fry (recipe tomorrow). If only we all had the time and means to prepare and eat our meals in such a manner.
Warm, frothy milk fresh from the barn/cow.
Let’s see a raise of hands for those of you who have made your own cheese. Anyone? If you haven’t, here’s a virtual demonstration of the world’s easiest cheese to make for yourself at home. It’s a mild cow’s milk cheese hailing from India that can be produced as a soft curd, similar to ricotta, or as a hard disk, similar to feta, only without the salty bite. You can even change its flavors with different blends of spices incorporated into the hot loose curds. If only everything was as easy as making this cheese, we’d all dine like maharajas every night.
When life gives you curdled milk, make cheese.
Since few of us, myself included when I’m not at my family farm, have easy access to raw milk and/or lots of extra time on our hands with which to make cheese, it’s not realistic to make your own cheese every day. But I would encourage you to try it, if only as an exercise in slowing down life, learning an ancient art form, and being more mindful of the food on your plate.
Stirring the spices into the soft cheese curds.
HOMEMADE INDIAN CHEESE (PANEER)
Taken from Madhur Jaffrey’s World Vegetarian
2 quarts whole milk*
3 to 4 T. distilled white vinegar
salt, pepper, herbs and other spices as desired**
* Raw milk is the best to use here, but you can also use pasturized milk, as long as it’s not ultra-pasturized. Most store brands are ultra-pasturized so avoid those. Instead, look for a semi-local diary’s brand, which usually isn’t subjected to the same high heat pasturization process since it doesn’t need to travel as far as the big name varieties.
** You can get as creative as you like with the spices, or you can just leave the cheese plain. For these batches, I used dried dill, ground mustard, salt and pepper in the soft curds and basil, cayenne, salt and pepper in the hard disk cheese.
Soft curds of paneer on the left and a hard disk of paneer on the right.
To begin, put milk in a large non-reactive heavy saucepan over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally to ensure it doesn’t scorch.
While milk heats, place a colander in the sink and line with a clean dish towel or two layers of cheesecloth, making sure you have at least a 24 inch square.
When milk begins to boil, turn the heat down to low. Quickly add three tablespoons of vinegar and stir. The mixture will curdle at this point and a thin greenish whey will seperate from the white fluffy curds. If this does not happen, add the remaining tablespoon of vinegar and stir until curds seperate. Remove from heat and empty the contents of the saucepan into the colander. Most of the whey will drain off. If you want seasonings, gently stir in after the cheese has drained for a minute or two.
If you like soft curds (good for sauces, stir-frys or on bread). allow cheese to drain for about 10 minutes, afterwhich cheese is ready to use. Can be stored for a day or two in the fridge in an airtight container.
(makes about 2 cups of curds)
Twisting the cheesecloth to squeeze out the whey for hard paneer.
If you prefer a harder cheese (good for frying, cubing and slicing), allow curds to sit in the colander for about 15 minutes until all the visible whey has drained off. Gather up the ends of the cheesecloth and twist to squeeze out as much liquid as possible. This will create a round bundle. Keep the cloth tightly twisted and lay the bundle on an upside down plate in the sink. Use your hands to flatten out the cheese bundle a bit, making sure the cloth stays tightly twisted. Put another plate on top of the cheese and place approximately five pounds of weight on top and allow cheese to sit for another 15 minutes. Carefully unwrap cheese from cloth and use within a day or two. Cheese is best stored wrapped in a damp clean cloth and placed in an air-tight container in the fridge.
(makes a 4″ x 1″ patty)
For hard paneer, place the wrapped cheese on an upside down plate in the sink to drain under pressure.