I think it’s about time to talk about tofu. Let’s face it, unless you grew up eating tofu, chances are you are not tofu’s number one fan. Personally, I am always disappointed by tofu recipes. Typically, tofu is used as a meat replacement, and, quite frankly, it just doesn’t do it for me. Now, I am sure that this disappointment is due, largely, to my inadequacy as a tofu cook and I will admit that I have eaten some pretty fantastic tofu dishes (made by other people, of course). Nevertheless, tofu has never been my first choice when it comes to a meat replacement.
I’m not sure how many of you are familiar with paneer, but I also certain that many of you have at least seen it before. It is a staple in Indian vegetarian cooking and almost always found on the vegetarian side of the Indian buffet (yep, that’s a thing). Paneer is India’s best kept culinary secret.
So, What is Paneer Exactly?
Paneer is a thick, creamy cottage cheese that has been pressed together until firm. Typically, it is sold 500 g blocks and actually does look a lot like tofu. Like tofu, paneer also has very little flavour on its own and, as such, readily adapts to the flavours of the dish in which it is cooked. However, the texture of paneer is quite different from tofu. Unlike tofu, paneer is not airy and spongy, but has a texture reminiscent to chicken breast – especially when cooked in stir-fry type dishes. For this reason, paneer is always my default when trying to replace chunky meat (i.e., chicken, steak) in recipes.
Paneer is Awesome, But it’s Not for Everyone
I much prefer paneer to tofu. Period.
But there are a few things about the paneer/tofu debate that I think bear mentioning:
1) Paneer is a dairy product which means that it is not suitable for vegans or people with dairy intolerance. Unfortunately, I recently learned that I am dairy intolerant and, as such, will have to limit my paneer consumption considerably. What a sad turn of events.
2) Paneer is not a source of iron. Unlike soy products (like tofu) and legumes, paneer does not provide any significant amount of iron to the body. In fact, dairy products have been shown to inhibit iron absorption, especially from plant-based sources . So, whenever I know that I will be making a paneer dish for dinner I try to make sure to serve an iron-rich lunch and/or breakfast.
3) There is a large South Asian population where I live, as such, paneer is readily available. However, depending on where you live, paneer may not be available at your local grocery store. In that case, you should be able to get paneer at your local South Asian food market.
|Texture||Creamy, Meaty||Spongy, Airy|
|Preparation||Cut and cook; no pre-draining required;||Pre-draining needed|
|Nutritional Information||Dairy; rich in calcium; higher in fat; nutritional value similar to cottage cheese||Soybean product; rich in iron; lower in fat|
|Uses||Versatile; takes on the flavour of dish||Versatile; takes on the flavour of dish|
|Availability||Available at speciality asian grocers; some mid-line and higher-end grocery stores dependent on location||Widely available; available at all major grocery stores|
|Dietary Restrictions||Not suitable for vegans and people with lactose intolerance||Not suitable for people with allergies to soy products|
Okay, You’re Convinced. Now what?
So now that you are convinced to at least try paneer, you are looking for a place to start. I would suggest trying paneer in literally any of your favourite meat-based meals. Just make sure to sautée the paneer until golden brown in some butter or olive oil before-hand.
As for me, I used paneer all the time and often use panner instead of chickpeas in my Vegan Butter Chickpea recipe (please note, that when you use paneer it is no longer vegan).
Recently, I was thinking about how much I loved Orange Beef/Chicken and how I haven’t hand anything close to Orange Beef since becoming a vegetarian. So, I started looking for an Orange Beef recipe that I could adapt using paneer and these Orange Paneer Kebabs were born. These Kebabs have all of the essential elements of Orange Beef. They are sweet and tangy and the paneer gives them a meaty texture very similar to original recipe. So yummy and long overdue!
Tricks of the Trade
You can actually make your own paneer at home in about 30-60 mins if you are so inclined. Personally, I buy my paneer at the store to save on prep time.
Orange Paneer Kebabs
These Orange Paneer Kebabs are a vegetarian twist on the classic Orange Beef and make a great appetizer or entrée thanks to their creamy star ingredient
- 1 package paneer 500 g
- 2 tbsp soy sauce, tamari, or coconut aminos
- 1/3 cup cornstarch or arrowroot flour
- 1/2 orange grilled and juiced
- 3 tbsp molasses
- 2 tbsp coconut sugar
- 1 tbsp rice vinegar
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1 tsp ginger powder
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/4-1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
- 2 tbsp cornstarch or arrowroot flour
- 3 sweet peppers, various colours
- 1 box cremini mushrooms 227 g
- 1 red onion
Prepare cookie sheet: Place a piece of parchment paper on top of a standard cookie sheet. Place a cookie cooling rack on top of the parchment paper.
Cut paneer into 1" cubes (or, thick enough so that they will not fall through the slots on your cookie cooling rack). Set aside.
Mix paneer coating mixture (soy sauce and cornstarch) in a large bowl. Add paneer cubes to mixture. Mix well, making sure to coat each piece of paneer.
Place coated paneer cubes onto the cooling rack of the prepared cookie sheet. Place cookie sheet into the freezer. (I always have to make use of my superior freezer re-organization skills in order to get the cookie sheet into my freezer.) Freeze for at least 45 minutes. This step helps to ensure that the paneer will be as crispy as possible when fried.
While the paneer is in the freezer, grill the 1/2 orange in a small amount of oil on a large frying pan (that way, you only have to use one pan for the whole recipe). Whisk the sauce ingredients together in a small bowl. Set aside.
Cut peppers and onions into large square pieces and mushrooms into halves. Sautée peppers, onions, and mushrooms in a small amount of oil until the peppers are beginning to go tender and the onion is translucent, about 5-8 minutes. Set aside.
After the paneer has been in the freezer for 45 minutes, heat 2 tbsp oil in a frying pan. Fry frozen paneer until golden brown, about 5 minutes each side.
Add orange sauce to the paneer and sautée with until sauce is thick and paneer pieces are completely coated, about 3-5 minutes.
Allow the orange paneer to cool enough to handle and then assemble kebabs.
Please feel free to serve the orange paneer on its own or with rice (rather than in kebab form). It's a little easier, faster, and still so delicious!
If you are hosting friends and planning on using these kebabs as an appetizer, feel free to make them ahead of time and then reheat in an oven, panini griller, or barbecue vegetable tray.
VEGAN OPTION: These kebabs can be made with tofu using the exact same procedure. The result does not give the creamy, meaty texture of paneer, but is still delicious
Recipe adapted from Simply Gourmet
 Lynch, Sean R. The effect of calcium on iron absorption. Nutrition Research Review. 2000 Dec;13(2):141-58. doi: 10.1079/095442200108729043.