Even though I now live in the South (of the US), I grew up eating Americanized versions of Thai, Mexican, Indian, Korean, Chinese, Brazilian, French, Moroccan, Jamaican, and Ethiopian foods as mainstays of my diet.
When I started homesteading full-time, I couldn't just trade all that culinary diversity for Southern classics like biscuits and gravy or shrimp and grits. Instead of abandoning my city-based eclectic food culture, I have adapted my favorite meals to use ingredients we can grow and make on our homestead.
For example, Palak Paneer, an Indian dish made with spicy spinach and fresh cheese, was one of my favorite meals and something I ate weekly. Unfortunately, with our hot climate growing spinach isn't so easy. Thankfully, I have lots of alternatives to spinach growing in my year-round garden.
Now I make what I call “Garden Greens Paneer” using seasonal greens and fresh paneer from my goats' milk. Your first time making this dish from scratch might seem a bit labor intensive. However, once you've made it a few times, you'll realize it's quite easy to integrate into your daily homestead routine.
Garden Greens Paneer
Traditional Palak Paneer is an Indian dish made with spinach, lots of spices, and cream. As the spinach and spices simmer and meld, a fresh cheese called paneer is added to the mix. Paneer has a creamy flavor and fluffy texture that perfectly compliments the savory, pungent greens and spices.
When eaten with rice or naan bread, this vegetarian dish is even more satisfying than a hearty meat stew. It also travels well. So it makes a great option to take to potluck dinners.
Given my shortage of spinach, I substitute in whatever greens I have growing fresh in the garden in each season. Here are some of my favorites to use.
Garden Greens That Make Great Palak (Spinach) Alternatives
Chard is one of the easiest greens to grow. Most people think of the rainbow chard mixes that have different stem colors. Those are beautiful and will work. However, production varieties like Erbette Chard and Perpetual Spinach are even better as a spinach substitute.
If you do any edible landscaping or permaculture, you've probably heard of New Zealand and Malabar Spinach. These plants are not in the spinach family at all. But they work so well as a spinach alternative; they are often mistaken for spinach when cooked.
These are both heat-loving, drought-tolerant, and so productive that unless harvested regularly they can take over your garden. Since you need a lot of greens for this dish, harvesting shouldn't be an issue!
Common Garden Weeds
Chickweed, lambsquarters, and purslane – sometimes considered weeds – are excellent vehicles for spices and as a compliment to paneer cheese. They tend to be prolific in gardens with a pH around 6.5 with good fertility. Even if you don't grow them intentionally, go ahead and harvest them for use in this dish!
Other Garden Greens
Pretty much any cooking green you grow (other than lettuce) like kale, collards, Chinese cabbage, mustard, turnip greens, radish greens, beet greens, and arugula can be used for this dish.
Sweet potato greens are another one of my favorites. I grow several sweet potato plants just for the greens so I can harvest lots of them from late June to October.
Each green will impart its unique flavor to your dish. However, since variety is the spice of life, I don't see this as a downside!
You can also use your garden herbs as part of your greens. Herbs are pungent, so a little goes a long way.
I like to add a handful of basil such as Italian, tulsi, thai, and others. De-stemmed oregano, sage, hyssop, savory, or marjoram also add incredible savory flavor. Chives, onion tops, and garlic scapes kick up the tangy.
You can even grow methi on the homestead. Methi is the leafy green part of the plant that produces fenugreek. The methi leaves impart an almost maple-like fragrance to your other greens. They are best added in during the last couple of minutes of cooking.
Spices for Homestead Garden Greens Paneer
There are thousands of different spice combinations used to make this delicious dish. The spice mix is made by heating a pan with oil and sauteing garlic and onions as a base for your spices. Sometimes people use a tomato in the spice base as well.
Then, the spices go in. These often include ginger, garam masala, turmeric, fresh chilies or chili powder, cinnamon, cardamom, bay leaf, methi, fenugreek, and coriander. You can search online to find recipes and get a sense of all the different variations.
I change my recipe based on what greens I am using and what's in my spice rack. Generally though, for every four cups of chopped greens, I use the following basic ingredients.
- 2 inches of fresh ginger, peeled and minced
- 6 large cloves of garlic
- 2 medium onions
- ½ teaspoon powdered coriander seeds
- ½ teaspoon powdered turmeric
- ¼ teaspoon garam masala
- a dash of cinnamon
- 1-2 chili peppers or powder
- Bit of honey (to counter any bitterness in the greens)
- Salt to taste
Cooking the Greens
Lots of recipes call for blanching greens for making palak paneer. Personally, all I do is chop my greens into manageable pieces. Then, once I get the spice paste going, I throw them in, cover the pot and allow the greens to wilt.
Once the greens have softened up a bit, I stir as needed to keep them from sticking to my pan. When they feel almost cooked, I add some goat's milk and butter. Other recipes also call for yogurt or cream.
Depending on the greens you use, you'll need to adjust your milk, cream, or yogurt quantities. For example, beet greens tend to have less moisture than spinach or false spinach, so I need to add more milk when using those.
On average, I use about 1/4 – 1/2 cup milk for every four cups of greens. I also use about a half stick of butter (yum!).
After adding the milk and butter, I use my emulsion blender to process the greens. I like a little texture in the greens, so I pulse the blade and stop before the mix gets soupy. You can also chop your ingredients finer before you start cooking if you don't have an emulsion blender.
The spices and greens are fantastic, even on their own. However, the thing that elevates this from being yummy creamed greens to being one of my most loved meals, is the paneer.
Now that you've got some good ideas on the kinds of greens and spices to use let's get down to the basics of making paneer.
Making Curds and Whey
Traditional paneer is made by warming milk slowly over low heat. Just before your milk boils, you add fresh lemon juice. The heat, mixed with the sudden acid shock, forces the milk to coagulate into cheese curds. The curds separate and float in the left-over liquid called whey.
Since different sources of milk have different amounts of fat, cooking temperatures vary. Generally, milk tends to boil around 213º F. However, if you watch your milk, it will begin to froth just before it boils. When it looks like the top of a perfect cappuccino, wait for the first bubble of milk, then add the lemon juice.
Also, depending on the kind of milk you use and how much paneer you want, your quantities of lemon juice will vary. I usually make 3-quart batches, and it takes 1-2 lemons worth of juice to trigger coagulation. You can add a little at a time and stop when the curds form.
Turn off the heat as soon as your curds form, so you don't scald your cheese.
Straining the Curds
Next, the cheese curds are strained through a cheesecloth or flour sack.
Drying the Curds
You can tie the towel up into a cheese ball and hang it for a few hours. The excess whey will drip out, and the curds will solidify. I hang mine for about 2-3 hours to make it solid, but also keep it supple. Don't over dry or the cheese will harden.
Store the Cheese Until Needed
Paneer is a fresh cheese that is best eaten within 2-3 days of making. I use mine the same day for peak flavor. Wrap and store the cheese chunk in your fridge until you are ready to make your dish.
Cut your Cheese into Cubes
To use, cut your cheese ball into similarly-sized cubes. These cubes function something like tofu to soak up the flavor and add a meaty-like experience to your dish. Cube size is a personal choice. I like mine to be just a little smaller than an inch in all directions.
Start by thickly slicing the paneer ball. Then cut those slices into strips. Finally cut the strips into squares.
Adding the Homemade Paneer
Since there is no rennet used in this recipe, this cheese will not melt like cheddar or mozzarella. If you cook it for a long time or over very high heat, it will break up into pieces and dissolve. Generally, though when using un-rennetted cheeses, like paneer, they are added to the pot at the tail end of cooking.
After you have prepared your greens with spices, turn off the heat and add the paneer. Stir gently to avoid breaking the cheese. Allow to sit for 15-20 minutes with the lid on, so the cheese can soak up the flavors.
Serve the Garden Greens Paneer
You can serve the paneer with steamed rice or naan bread. Or, you can eat it as is.
Homestead Paneer with Whey Vinegar
Since I only get a few lemons at a time on my greenhouse lemon tree and don't get out to the grocery store very often, I wanted to find some other tasty acid source to use to flavor and coagulate the cheese. I tried several vinegar varieties, but none of them stacked up with lemon juice on the taste front.
Once I started making whey vinegar though, I discovered that was an even tastier choice for paneer than lemons. Whey vinegar is very easy to make it just takes patience. But if you have tons of whey, this is a great use of that cheese-making by-product.
Step 1: Gather your Ingredients
For every quart of whey, you need the following:
- ¼ – ½ cup of sugar
- Two tablespoons of vinegar “with the mother”
- Or, an actual mother vinegar mother (shown above)
- Optional: 3 fenugreek seeds and a clove
Use whey that has most of the milk solids removed. For, example, I get my best results from the whey left after I have made mozzarella and then boiled the whey to extract the ricotta as well.
The amount of sugar you use determines the acidity of the vinegar. Also, more sugar makes fermentation faster. In summer, I use about 1/4 cup sugar. In winter I have better results with 1/2 cup sugar.
A Note on Vinegar Mothers:
If you are new to making vinegar, you might not have a vinegar mother sitting around. So, as a starter culture, you can use any raw vinegar that has live cultures in it. This is usually marked as “with the mother” on the label.
Once you've made vinegar a few times, you'll start to get those lovely blob-like discs that float to the top of your vinegar. They will get thicker and begin to make babies (more disc-blobs). If you use one of these mothers, your vinegar will transform even faster than just using live vinegar starter culture.
Step 2: Combine Ingredients
Next, put all of your ingredients in a jar made of glass, ceramic, stainless steel, or food-grade plastic. Avoid materials that are reactive with vinegar or that might decay when in contact with acid. Finished vinegar is acetic acid and may have more than the 5% acidity found in commercial vinegar.
I add my whey and sugar and stir. Then I add the starter or mother. I don't mix those in; I just let them settle on their own.
Step 3: Cover and Let Nature Happen
I usually cover my jars with coffee filters or flour sacks to keep bugs out while letting air in. Then, you need to store your mix in a dark location that is roughly between 70 – 85º F.
I have a little cubbyhole next to my refrigerator, covered with a towel, that I use as my vinegar closet. The motor on the fridge keeps that area warmer than the rest of my kitchen.
Step 4: Wait and Taste
Depending on the time of year, it can take 1-3 months for the yeast and acetobacter to do their magic and make the whey and sugar into vinegar.
At the outset, the whey mix looks a bit like lemonade. It will be cloudy from the solids in the whey. As it transforms into vinegar, the solids in the whey will begin to settle at the bottom of your container. The color of your liquid will also become darker.
When your vinegar is finished, it will be shiny, golden brown. And you'll have roughly an inch or so of solids at the bottom of your container.
The taste should be tart and tangy. You should not taste any residual sweetness from the sugar.
Step 5: Strain and Bottle Your Whey Vinegar
Use a cheesecloth or filter to strain some of the solids from your vinegar. Then allow the vinegar to rest for a few days for residual solids to settle again.
Whey vinegar has a lot of fine particulate matter, so it's difficult to remove all the solids. However, since the vinegar rises to the top, you just have to pour it carefully and stop when you get to the settled solids.
Optional: Age Your Whey Vinegar
You can use your whey vinegar as soon as it is finished. However, the taste gets even better if you can age it in a dark bottle for six months or longer. It begins to caramelize like balsamic and thicken just a bit.
Use your Whey Vinegar to Make Paneer
Just as you would with lemon juice, pour your whey vinegar slowly into your almost boiling milk. Stop adding it as soon as the curds coagulate.