While teaching English as a second language in Boston, Lynne Christy Anderson found that for her students, immigrants from many different backgrounds, food was common ground. “It’s this way to remain connected to the past, but it also…forms a bridge into the future”, she said in this recent interview with Radio Boston. When the class was over, Anderson continued to explore this connection, talking to, and cooking with, people from around the world. She collects these stories and recipes in her book, Breaking Bread.
In this guest post, Anderson incorporates Maine summer peas into Soni’s Indian matur paneer.
I’m in Maine now and peas are in season. (Things are always a few weeks behind up here or, as those from this part of the state would say, down this way.) Driving into town the other day I passed several signs for peas–handwritten on pieces of cardboard and posted on a pole or mailbox at the end of a dirt lane, an invitation not only to purchase the produce on offer, but also something I love even more, the opportunity to glimpse the farm or little cottage tucked behind the trees. This time it was a Greek revival farmhouse –white with green trim as so many of them here are―with a garden out back looking over Penobscot Bay.
I bought all the peas they had, about three and a half pounds, because my daughter eats one for every three or four she shells. Sometimes I prepare them the way my grandmother did, simply steamed with a touch of water, covered with a lettuce leaf (she always used Boston) so the moisture doesn’t escape, and tossed with a pinch of salt, fresh pepper, and a hefty tablespoon (or two) of butter and served immediately.
This time, though, I made Soni’s matur paneer. My kids love it, especially the paneer, the chunks of creamy mild cheese made from separating milk curds from the whey. I’m drawn to the subtle flavors that complement the peas, the garam masala, a combination of spices that Soni told me many cooks in India still mix by hand. I’ve taken to doing this, too, and enjoy roasting and grinding the cardamom, cloves, and cumin because of the wonderful scents that fill the kitchen when I’m done.
Matur paneer is delicious with Soni’s roti, another recipe my kids love to make as they hone their skills with the rolling pin and then, watch to see whose bread puffs up the highest when they’re cooked over the flame. When I spent the day with Soni and her family, it was little Urvi, Soni’s daughter, age three and a half, who made the roti to accompany the complete Indian meal her mother had prepared.
Wherever you are on this beautiful summer day, you’re certain to find vegetables in season to make some of the wonderful dishes that Soni first learned to prepare with her mother back in India. Here are a few of them.
2 tablespoons ghee (recipe below) or vegetable oil
1/3 cup finely chopped red onion
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped
½ teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon garam masala (recipe below)
2 tomatoes, pureed in a blender or food processor to yield about 1 cup
4 cups shelled peas
Panir, cut into ½-inch cubes to yield 1 cup (recipe follows)
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoon fresh cilantro leaves, chopped
In a heavy-bottomed skillet, heat the ghee over medium heat until shimmering. Add the onions and cook, stirring frequently, until almost soft, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and ginger and continue to cook, stirring, until the vegetables are translucent, about 2 minutes. Add the cumin and garam masala and continue to cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Add pureed tomatoes and continue to cook until the juice has reduced by half, about 10 minutes. Add the peas and cook just until done, about 3 minutes. Add the panir cubes, stirring gently. Season with salt and pepper. Transfer to a serving dish and sprinkle with chopped cilantro.
½ gallon (8 cups) whole milk
¼ cup water
6 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
In a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan, slowly heat the milk and water nearly to a boil, stirring frequently to prevent scorching. Remove the mixture from heat and gently stir in the lemon juice. The milk should begin to separate. If not, return to heat and continue to stir gently until it separates. Remove from heat.
Drape several thicknesses of cheese cloth over a colander in the sink. Using a slotted spoon, carefully transfer the curds of cheese to the colander. Gather the ends of the cloth and twist to hold the cheese together while it drains in the colander. Place a heavy object, such as a ceramic bowl, on top of the wrapped cheese until the excess liquid has drained, about 20 minutes.
Paneer may be stored, tightly sealed, in the refrigerator for several days.
2 teaspoons cardamom seed
One 2-inch stick cinnamon
1 teaspoon whole cloves
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 teaspoon fresh grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon cumin seed
In a heavy saucepan over medium heat, toast the spices, stirring constantly until lightly browned, about 2 minutes. Cool.
In a spice grinder (a coffee grinder that has been thoroughly cleaned of coffee grounds will do) finely grind the toasted spices. Can be stored, tightly covered, for up to 6 months.
GHEE (makes about ¾ cup)
2 sticks (½ pound) unsalted butter, cut into pieces
In a heavy saucepan over very low heat, melt the butter. Remove from the heat and let stand for 5 minutes.
Skim the foam from the top and discard. Pour the melted butter slowly into a container, discarding the milk solids in the bottom of the pan. Ghee can be stored, tightly covered, for one month at room temperature, and up to six months in the refrigerator.
ROTI (Makes 12 rounds)
Note: You will need a gas stove with a direct flame to make this properly
2 cups whole-wheat flour
1-1 ¼ cups lukewarm water
3 tablespoons melted ghee or vegetable oil
Pour the flour in a large bowl and form a cuplike well. Add the 1 cup of water and work the mixture with a fork until the dough begins to come together. (You may need to add the remaining ¼ cup water if dough is too crumbly and hard to work.)
Gather the dough and turn it onto a floured surface to knead. Knead dough by folding it end to end, then pressing it down and pushing it forward several times with the heel of your hand. Repeat for 4-5 minutes, or until the dough becomes smooth and elastic.
Gather dough in a ball, place it in a bowl, cover with a cloth, and let rest for 30 minutes. Divide the dough into 12 equal pieces. Using your hands, shape each piece into a ball. On a very lightly floured surface, roll each ball into a 5-inch round with a rolling pin.
Without adding oil or ghee, heat a heavy-bottomed skillet or cast-iron pan over medium-high heat. When the pan is very hot, add one of the roti. Shake the pan back and forth to prevent the roti from sticking. Cook until bubbles begin to appear and the bread is lightly browned, about 1 minute. Using tongs, turn over and cook for another minute. Transfer the roti to cook over an open flame by placing it directly on the burner of a gas stove set at medium heat. When the roti begins to puff up like a ball, about 15-30 seconds, flip it using the tongs. Cook the roti on the other side for another 15-30 seconds. Remove from flame and brush the top half with ghee. Stack roti on a plate and serve immediately.
Lynne Christy Anderson is the author of Breaking Bread: Recipes and Stories from Immigrant Kitchens. Visit her website at www.LynneChristyAnderson.com