Paneer and Other Magic Tricks You Can Do in North Dakota*

I’ve learned that when you have to go around a room and introduce yourself by name and an interesting fact about yourself, it helps to be able to say, very casually, “I make paneer.” If you go on to explain that paneer is an Indian cheese, and you make it to use in some of your favorite curries, you will quickly see the room divide into two camps. One camp thinks you are crazy. The other wants to come to dinner.

In summer of 2008, at our neighborhood farmers' market, a man was beginning a cooking demonstration to promote his new cookbook, and the scent of sautéing garlic, ginger, and onion filled the air. My daughter, Cora, then two-years-old, was done with the market, having exhausted the thrill of buying her own carrot and tasting the cabbage leaves. We left, but I noted the book’s title.

The man was Raghavan Iyer, and the book was 660 Curries. I found the book at the library and made a couple of curries. We were hooked. We bought our own copy. “Curry Night” made regular appearances in our menu plan, especially on days when we had lots of produce fresh from the farmers' market, or when our late summer CSA box was full to bursting. Cooking from this book became an interesting fusion of local and global; while I might be able to use local, organic, fresh onions, potatoes, cabbage, and garlic, plus chiles out of my own or a friend’s backyard, it is more difficult to find a local source for tamarind paste, cardamom seeds, basmati, or cow peas.

Is it better to use organic California basmati-like rice, which is organic and arguably more local than India or Pakistan? Or is it more desirable to choose authenticity and go with the true basmati rice from the other side of the globe? Can I at least purchase my globally-sourced products from small, local, independent shops? How does buying online fit into this equation? What if you move to the northern part of North Dakota, it's January, the Siberian Express is about to hit, and you really crave curry, or your go-to comfort food is chicken mole?

Frankly, I end up choosing differently each time, and sometimes the pressures of time and convenience have their way with me, leading to choices that I later second-guess. But, in our house, we try to make regret an impetus to make changes, not just a comfy mudbath to wallow in. And so over time I have become more adept at managing time and convenience, and at finding ways to make my preferred choice more convenient to my routine. I am lucky that currently, although I live in a location with reduced options, I do have one small, local, independent source for many of my global ingredients.

Well, there is one other option – to forgo global cuisine in favor of what is only available to me right here, right now. Perhaps I am being selfish in wanting to have my curries, tacos, pad thai, risotto, and Yorkshire pudding, too. (Okay, it is actually very easy to make Yorkshire pudding only from local, organic ingredients.) But my love of American folk music does not keep me from playing my Manu Chao CD, and if you're passionate about food, you're passionate about exploring food. Jake Shimabokuru believes that ukulele music can help bring about happiness and world peace (I’m not going to argue with him) -- and I believe that a familiarity with the world’s foods could also play a role.

This is why many of my favorite cookbooks feature recipes from India, Mexico, France, Italy, and, the newest addition, Thailand. It is why my perennial New Year’s resolution is to make, on average, one new recipe a week. Granted, this is sometimes complicated by having a preschooler in the house. Sometimes a new recipe immediately wins us over. Mutter paneer, that perfect blend of cheese, peas, tomato sauce, cilantro, and spices, so delicious and so quick, is one of these.

The day before we have friends over for curry night, I make the paneer, performing my favorite magic trick with only whole milk and vinegar. The milk takes forever to boil; the final twenty minutes are excruciating as I second-guess when it is really boiling, and not just foaming or at a very high simmer. Misjudging the boil means not as much cheese. When the milk is at a good boil, I pour in a quarter cup of vinegar. Almost immediately curds begin to rise to the surface. It is a ridiculously exciting moment. After a few minutes, I pour the curds and whey into a colander lined with cheesecloth, eager to see if it was a good batch. In the morning, I take my lovely white cake of paneer from the fridge, slice it into cubes, and fry it in canola until lightly browned.

I check my bottle of bin bhuna hua garam masala, the particular spice blend for this dish, to see if I need to make more or not. An old coffee grinder has found a new life as my spice grinder, and collecting the coriander, cardamom seeds, cloves, bay leaves, and other ingredients gives me the kind of giddiness that my daughter gets from playing dress-up.

When our friends arrive, we open a bottle of wine and I start the mutter paneer and the chicken curry – murghi jardaloo – I am making to go with it. Thirty minutes later we are sitting at the table with plates of rice, curries, chutney, pickle, and raita. (Cora, who has yet to fully discover her ethnic appetite, sticks with her Mama’s homemade chicken noodle soup, with a side of paneer.) For the next couple of hours, the combination of good food and good friends creates much happiness; another wonderful magic trick.

*These tricks will actually work just about anywhere.

Merie Kirby grew up in California, moved to Minneapolis for grad school, and after getting her MFA stayed for fifteen more years. She now lives in Grand Forks, ND with her husband and daughter. Merie writes poetry and essays, as well as texts in collaboration with composers. She also writes about cooking, reading, parenting, and creating on her own blog, All Cheese Dinner. Her most recurrent dream is of making cookies with her mother. This is an excellent dream. This is Merie's first piece for Simple, Good, and Tasty.