Early Christmas gift: googly Greek Yogurt Spaghetti.

You will always find the following at your local Salvation Army thrift store:

1) A dusty Graniteware roasting pan, circa 1978, with or without matching lid.
2) Replica poultry, circa 1956.
3) Something with googly eyes, circa “No era’s not a good era for googly eyes.”

I just happened to have been unsuccessfully hunting for vintage silverware at The Salvation Army the same day that my mailman delivered a surprise gift from a friend: I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence, by Amy Sedaris, famed cupcake baker and cheese ball maker. After finishing the surprisingly heavy book in two days, I can guarantee that you will find the following inside:

Googly Greek Yogurt Spaghetti1) Dusty Graniteware roasting pans.
2) Replica poultry in plastic and ceramic.
3) Lots of things with googly eyes.

The book is hysterically, dementedly, determinedly tacky and five times more politically incorrect than anything Anthony Bourdain has published under his real name. Rather than use food stylists, it looks as if Sedaris hunted down the original and partially deceased photography staff of vintage Jell-O cookbooks. In between her advice on gifts for gypsies (“It’s not your fault” lice comb), being a good guest (“Keep your parasites to yourself”), and children’s party games (“JR. CAT BURGLAR: Lock the children out of the house and see if they can break in”), she provides helpful advice that reveals a genuine love of food and entertaining. Send children’s party invitations through the mail, she suggests, because children love receiving mail addressed to them. If you throw a dinner party, serve dinner right away to keep people from leaving right after dinner and ending the party early. Then there are the many many recipes, disorganized and sparely written, yet oozing the same tested authenticity that oozes from your grand-aunt’s tattered favorites, except with more pictures of pine cones with googly eyes.

The spaghetti recipe caught my googly eye (just the left one) because it uses yogurt, something I haven’t tried on pasta. Also, I dissed onions last week even though caramelized onion have to be one of my top five favorite ingredients (I feel a future post coming on…). The sweet browned onions, creamy yogurt, and buttery pine nuts give the illusion of eating something as rich as Alfredo without the consequences, although this dish isn’t exactly light either. The recipe has been scaled down to feed two generously or three lightly. The photograph shows one of two servings on a standard dinner plate.

Notes on the photograph: We actually use that napkin holder. Somebody, don’t know who, made it for us, don’t know when. Since nobody’s sure if she’s dead yet, we haven’t replaced it. You can’t go randomly offending napkin-holder-making ladies, they might be important or have you in their will or something. Besides, it serves its purpose; napkin-dispensing shouldn’t cost more than the napkins dispensed, at least not until you strike gold with the napkin-holder-making-lady inheritance. I don’t know where that cat came from either. When it’s not camping up food photography, its main job is containing paper clips. And that plate is chipped, I promise.

GOOGLY GREEK YOGURT SPAGHETTI
Adapted from I Like You, by Amy Sedaris who was in turn—
Inspired by The Glorious Foods of Greece, by Diane Kochilas
Makes 2-3 servings

Ingredients:
· 2-3 Tablespoons olive oil
· 2 large onions, coarsely diced
· 6 ounces uncooked spaghetti
· 1 cup Greek yogurt or yogurt cheese (see note below)
· 3 ounces coarsely grated Kefalotiri or other salty hard cheese such as Romano or Parmesan, divided in half
· 4 Tablespoons toasted pine nuts
· Salt to taste
· Chopped parsley to garnish

1) Heat the oil in a medium skillet over medium-high heat and add the onions. Fry the onions, stirring constantly, until they darken a shade and begin to dry out. Drop the heat to medium-low and continue stirring frequently until the onions are caramel-colored. The whole process may take half an hour, but don’t rush it, and don’t let the onions burn! Cover the pan, remove pan from heat, and set aside. (You may want to start the water boiling for the pasta when the onions look almost ready.)

2) Boil the spaghetti in salted water. While the pasta cooks, stir the yogurt into the onions. When the spaghetti is nearly al dente, ladle 3 tablespoons of the hot pasta water to the yogurt-onion mixture to thin it a bit. Stir, then mix in the pine nuts and half the cheese. Reserve another extra half cup of the pasta water just in case.

3) Drain the pasta. Dump the hot noodles into the pan with the onions and stir until spaghetti is thoroughly coated, adding more pasta water as needed to thin the sauce, keeping in mind that the pasta will thicken a bit as it cools. Taste and adjust for salt.

4) Serve on warmed plates and sprinkle with the reserved cheese and the parsley.

Note: If you can’t find Greek yogurt (like me, sigh), drain 2 cups of plain, unflavored, unsweetened yogurt through a yogurt cheese maker or a colander or sieve lined with several layers of cheesecloth. Place the colander over a bowl in the fridge for at least 12 hours, 24 if possible. This may not work well if your yogurt has been heavily fortified with gelatin. In my experience, moderate amounts of pectin don’t seem to cause problems.

Paneer frontier.

Why would I, a non-Indian food blogger, write about Indian food when you could easily read about it on blogs written by Indians? I’ll tell you why: I, unlike most Indians, harness the power of the Germans. As a Korean-American who likes to make Indian cheese with German ingredients for use in Italian dishes, I’m one step shy of hosting a United Nations conference in my own kitchen. Curiosity piqued? Read on.

Paneer is a fresh cheese used in savory dishes like mutter paneer (peas and paneer in a rich red sauce) or in sweet treats like the divine ras malai. Fresh paneer can be pressed to create a texture similar to that of firm (not silken) tofu for savory dishes or kneaded with sugar to a soft smooth texture for use in desserts. You’ll often see advice to substitute firm tofu for pressed paneer if you don’t have paneer on hand. In my opinion, paneer has an unmistakable fresh dairy flavor that tofu’s, er, tofuiness lacks, but in a flavorful dish like saag paneer that may be acceptable.

[Pictured: Sheet of pressed paneer cubed with a pizza cutter.]

paneer

Paneer is easy to make but takes time. Basically you boil milk, add an acid, strain out the curds, and press the curds. Exact methods vary. Some people boil the milk for a while, others bring the milk just to a boil, some take the milk off the heat after adding the acid, some boil the milk with the acid for a while, and so on. Unless you need an especially soft paneer to use in a dessert, I find that the exact method doesn’t matter much. What does matter is the acid you use—either white vinegar, lemon juice, lime juice, yogurt, or whey left over from a previous batch of paneer.

Whey supposedly yields the softest paneer, but since I make paneer only a few times a year, I don’t generally have leftover whey on hand. Yogurt is an interesting suggestion that I haven’t tried because one of the greatest draws of homemade paneer is that it’s dirt cheap, and the cost of the yogurt used often exceeds the cost of the milk to make the paneer. When I’ve made homemade yogurt I’d rather just eat it or use it in other dishes. Citrus juices add a pleasant sour flavor but can also add to the price of the paneer unless you have a lemon tree. White vinegar adds that disctintive acetic acid flavor plus a trace paint thinner taste, probably because white vinegar is only about 5% acid, leaving 95% Something Else. Other vinegars such as red wine vinegar, apple cider vinegar, or ::gasp:: balsamic vinegar have flavor profiles that are just, well, wrong.

Which brings us to the Germans. Koreans often use vinegar in many kinds of namul, vegetable side dishes served with rice. At some point many Korean-Americans (not sure about Koreans) started using Surig, a high-acid German vinegar with a clean, pure flavor superior to that of distilled white vinegar. If you don’t have a German grocer, try looking for Surig at the Korean grocer. Because of the high acidity, you need only about a fourth or a fifth the amount of Surig that you’d need of white vinegar, giving you less Something Else to add off-flavors to your paneer. I recommend it for use in savory dishes where the acetic acid flavor won’t be a problem. In sweet dishes I’d stick to lemon or lime juice. Failing that, white vinegar works just fine, but you’ll no longer be welcome in German Club. Nein!

EIN PANEER REZEPT, JA!
Makes about 4 cups of lightly packed half-inch paneer cubes

Special equipment:
· Big pot
· Colander
· Cheesecloth
· Something heavy, preferably not alive

Ingredients:
· 1 gallon lowfat (2%) milk, allowed to come to room temperature (optional, but saves time)
· 1 tablespoon Surig, maybe more,
     OR 4 tablespoons white distilled vinegar, maybe more,
     OR the juice of 2 lemons, maybe more,
     OR the juice of 3 limes, maybe more

1) Line a large colander with 4 layers of cheesecloth cut large enough to dangle generously over the edges. Place in sink.

2) Pour milk into a large pot with at least 3 inches of spare space above the milk. You’ll thank me for this extra space later. Bring milk to a boil on medium heat. High heat may burn the milk and make a funky paneer (bad funky, not good funky), so err on the side of lower heat. A non-stick pan helps if you have one that big. Stir frequently.

3) When the milk boils and starts to foam up but not over your generous 3-inch margin of safety (you’re welcome), blow hard on the milk to keep the foam under control, then add your acid. Stir for about 15 seconds. The solids should separate out and leave behind a greenish translucent whey. If you don’t see that greenish color and a distinct separation of solids and liquids, add a bit more acid and stir again for 15 seconds. Repeat as needed. Results will vary depending on the kind of milk you use and the acid employed.

4) After the curds and whey have separated, turn off the heat and carefully pour the contents of the pot into the lined colander. Let the visible whey drain out for several minutes, then carefully pull up the edges of the cheesecloth and lift up your paneer to drain some more. At this point some people like to tie up the corners of the cloth into something resembling one of those packs that hobos always carry on sticks in old cartoons and hang the paneer up to drain. I’m lazy and prefer to go straight to the pressing step.

5) Place the cheesecloth on a flat surface such as a heat-proof cutting board and carefully cover the paneer with even layers of the cheesecloth edges, lifting and shaping the paneer into a flat rectangle as you do so. Slide one edge of the cutting board over the sink then place a folded towel under the other edge to slightly slant the board so that the whey drains into the sink. Place a large flat item such as a plate or a tray on top of the paneer, then place a heavy weight on top of that, making sure the paneer is being pressed flat and level. I use barbell weights, but some people like Encyclopedia Britannica volumes A through H. Whatever you use, let the paneer flatten and drain for a few hours. The longer its pressed, the firmer the paneer will be.

6) Remove the paneer from the cheesecloth and cut into desired shapes and sizes. Store paneer in refrigerator or freeze for future use, though it’s best fresh. Many recipes call for frying the cubes in ghee, but I consider that an optional step unless the paneer will be eaten plain.

Flavored paneer: You can add salt and other herbs and spices to the paneer. Mix them in with the crumbled paneer before pressing. Yum.

Different milks: Whole milk yields softer, richer paneer; skim milk yields grainy, rubbery paneer. Lowfat milk is a good compromise between flavor and health.

Reduced batches: The recipe can easily be halved, quartered, maybe even reduced some more. If you have milk on the brink of going bad, this is a great way to use it up.

On whey: According to King Arthur Flour, leftover whey is highly nutritious and due to its acidic nature has an effect like buttermilk or vinegar in baking. More information and a recipe. To save some whey, put your colander over a large heatproof container to catch the draining liquid. Lift the colander up and out of the whey, remove the container, then continue as directed. Things will be hot, so use caution.

Nutrition: According to New Indian Home Cooking by Madhu Gadia, each 1/2 cup of paneer cubes (an eighth of this batch) made with lowfat milk has 160 calories, 4 g carbs, 16 g protein, 9 g fat, and 36 mg cholesterol.

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bullet Food link recommendation
· My favorite Germany-based food blog, written in English: the gorgeous delicious days.
· My favorite Indian food blog, written in English by an Indian living in the U.S.: Mahanandi, frequently updated with amazing recipes and Indian food facts.