The "Taste the Nation" host shares how to make the Indian cheese from scratch, then uses one condiment to really take the salad over the top.

Karla Walsh
February 24, 2021
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padma lakshmi
Getty Images / Noel Vasquez / Contributorn
| Credit: Getty Images / Noel Vasquez / Contributor

In addition to being a mom, author of three cookbooks and the memoir Love, Loss, and What We Ate ($17.99, amazon.com), as well as the host of Hulu's Taste the Nation and Bravo's Top Chef (whew!), Padma Lakshmi is a master at hosting how-to cooking demos on Instagram.

The latest, which she posted on Monday, really caught our eye because it includes a h-o-t upgrade on the basic bean salad with homemade cheese and a secret ingredient spooned over top. Just in time to give our menus an extreme makeover for spring!

Watch for the adorable cameo by her pink sweater-clad dog, Divina, which Lakshmi adopted in November, stay for the scrumptious meal idea that inspired Katie Couric to comment, "Yummmmmmm."

The cheese part is where things take some time, so we'll walk you through it.

"Today I'm going to make paneer, an Indian cheese made with whole milk. You've probably had it in saag paneer, which is spinach and paneer," Lakshmi explains, noting that they use the firm tofu-textured cheese in a variety of ways in Indian cuisine. "You can find frozen paneer, of course, but it's so easy to make!"

Start with a clean, dry, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-low heat. Pour in 4 cups of whole milk (the fat is essential to curdle into the cheese). Stir constantly and keep an eye on the milk so it doesn't boil over, Lakshmi advises. As that ever-so-slightly simmers, line a strainer with a thin dish towel (like Utopia Towels Reusable Soft Cotton Dish Cloths; $15.49 for 12, amazon.com) then set the strainer over the bowl. This way you can save the whey and the curds when you separate them.

"I like to use ½ teaspoon to 1 teaspoon of lemon juice per cup of milk," Lakshmi says, to help bring the cheese together. So for 4 cups of milk, you'll slowly stir in 2 to 4 teaspoons of the acidic juice by ½ teaspoon or so at a time. It will slowly curdle up into little pebble-like pieces and you'll notice the liquid part appearing a bit more yellow in hue, which is the whey component of the dairy.

You'll know there are enough curds when, "all of the milk needs to be curdled, right? When you only see clear liquid [as you skin a spoon over the top of the pan], that's the whey coming out. That's the liquid coming out of the solids to make paneer." It should take about 15 or 20 minutes, and you will start to smell the difference.

Pour the curdled milk into the prepared, strainer-topped bowl, then carefully gather up the towel and squeeze out the liquid once it's cool enough to handle. Squeeze the cheese together into a round and tie a knot in the towel near the top of the ball and hang this from something (Lakshmi uses her sink faucet) to allow any excess liquid to strain off.

"If you're vegan and want to do this, try tofu. It's a great substitute for paneer," she says.

Then to put the DIY paneer to delicious use, Lakshmi goes on to demonstrate a simple chickpea appetizer that you can enjoy as a snack or scoop up with crackers for a light lunch. In a medium bowl, mix crumbled paneer, drained and rinsed chickpeas, chopped cilantro and diced red onion.

Then comes the crowning glory: A generous few spoonfuls of homemade chili crisp, which Lakshmi demonstrated how to whip up in an IGTV post she shared on Valentine's Day. (Here at the EatingWell headquarters, we're big fans of Trader Joe's Chili Onion Crunch and Amazon-sold Lao Gan Ma Spicy Chili Crisp if you don't want to start from scratch.) Stir to combine and the results are, "Really good," Lakshmi says. The only thing missing? "I think it needs more chili crisp!"

There's rarely enough, in our honest opinion, Padma, so we're right there with you! And will be following your wise lead in the kitchen tonight to make the paneer for tomorrow's lunch of chili-ed-up chickpea salad.