The sweet aroma of fennel elevated this effortless and ordinary tomato based curry to something quite ornate. You would be surprised how simple this recipe is, with no use of the usual onion, garlic or cream to make it rich. But it is sumptuous with ample texture imparted by the tomatoes and powdered almonds.
While fennel seeds are often consumed for digestion after a meal, it is not really known to be solely used to flavor a dish; at least not in my parts of the country. Some regions in India do use fennel seeds in a big amount to flavor a curry. But it was not quite that way in my home while I was growing up.
Toasted fennel or sugar coated fennel seeds filled in glass jars or tiny stainless steel bowls finds an eternal place somewhere near the dining table in a lot of Indian homes. Then there was fennel seeds in Panch Phoron or the Bengali Five Spice mix. Chilled Mouri r jol (water with fennel seeds soaked in it) was gulped down in tablespoons during any kind of stomach infection. Then there was fennel added to some desserts. But to add tablespoon of powdered fennel seeds almost never happened or at least not significantly enough for me to recollect or weave memories.
Until of course I decided to look beyond over the broader horizons. Only then I knew how sweet the aroma of fennel can be and how magically it can transform a dish to mere “everyday” to a sheer celebrity status.
I learned that the summer ripe tomatoes achieve a different dimension with there are fennel seeds. I also learned to add the to poultry and meat. Then there came the divine essence of the Kashmiri dishes. There always will be this simple street side Halwai Wala Aloo (a potato curry from the streets of India) which I will post some time later. All with the dominant flavors of fennel.
Soaking store bought paneer in hot water or salted hot water, softens them and makes them more absorbent.
And I was not fond of Paneer when I was a child. Not at all. I would not touch the Bengali Chana r Dalna, a light paneer curry, with a pole. I knew when my maa was pan frying the paneer while I sat in my room watching the branches of the neem leaves sway with the breeze and brush against my window. I would walk to the window and breathe in fresh air trying to ignore the “dairy” like smell that floated upstairs from the kitchen. Same stories can be told with popular Matar Paneer or the Peas and Paneer curry. I stayed away from popular desserts like Knachagolla made with uncooked paneer. The only way I could eat paneer was the lip smacking Tandoori Paneer or the Saag Paneer.
A lot has changed since then.
I had found these beautiful tomatoes in the midst of winter. I knew they are not “local” , but they were hard to resist. Paneer never ceases to lure my kids to the dinner table. It breaks the monotony and makes every dinner special.
Cooked with the inspirations of the Kashmiri flavors and the simplicity of a dish of Paneer with tomatoes that was served by A’s aunt when we visited Atlanta, I made my own kind here. You will not need to chop any onion or garlic here. There is no cream used, even though using a tiny bit won’t hurt.
Paneer in Fennel Flavored Tomato Sauce
Ingredients: (serves 2-3 as a side)
- 1.5 cups cubed Paneer (+ 1.5 cups of hot water if you are using store bought paneer)
- 1.5 – 2 cups (8 oz cup size) finely chopped/grated fresh tomatoes
- 1.5 -2 tablespoon oil/ghee/butter
- 2 small green cardamom
- 1″ cinnamon sticks
- 1 teaspoon fennel seed powder (use a spice/coffee grinder to powder the seeds)
- 1/2 teaspoon ginger powder
- a fresh grind of black pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon turmeric powder
- 1/4 cup ground almond/almond meal
- sugar or honey to offset the tart/sourness of tomatoes (adjust amount)
- 1 tablespoon paprika/cayenne/red chili powder (adjust amount to taste)
- 1 -2 hot green chili pepper
- salt to taste
- fresh cilantro/coriander for garnish
Slice the paneer in cubes. If you are using store paneer, it will be a good idea to allow them to sit in a bowl of hot water for about 10-15 minutes. Do not discard the water they are immersed in; it can be used in the cooking later on.
Finely chop or grate the tomatoes (in a box grater). Pureed tomatoes may be used too, but something with a little bit of texture works a little better while cooking this. Heat oil/ghee/butter in a pan/pot. Add the slit green chili peppers and when they brown a bit on the sides, add the cracked cardamom and the cinnamon. When they start to sizzle add the fennel and the ginger powder and then immediately add the tomatoes to the pan.
As the tomatoes cook, add turmeric powder, the freshly ground black pepper, almond meal, sugar/honey, salt and red chilli powder/cayenne/paprika. Stir everything together and allow the sauce to simmer while occasionally stirring to prevent it from sticking to the bottom of the pan. It might take as long as 20 minutes for the tomatoes to get cooked, reduced and the raw taste to go away.
Once done, the tomato mix would have reduced to half or less than half of the original amount and you will see the mix releasing oil. The raw taste should have gone by now. (If you want a smooth sauce, you may cool this paste and blend it smooth and then return it back to the pan).
Add the paneer cubes and gently toss them for the paste to coat the paneer. Now if you had soaked the paneer in hot water, add that 1.5 cups of that water it was soaking in and another half cup if you want extra sauce. If you have not soaked the paneer, just add about 1.5-2 cups of water to the pan and bring it to a boil. Cook until the sauce has thickened enough to nicely coat a spoon. Adjust salt.
Serve hot garnished with fresh cilantro if you want with rice or bread.
Preparation Time: 10 minutes
Cooking Time: 30 minutes
Difficulty Level: Easy
Serves: (2-3 as a side)
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Tofu Recipes that can be made with Paneer: