The first time I remember having Indian food was in Philadelphia when I was about 8 years old. My older brother was living there at the time, going to graduate school, and he was a vegetarian, so I have a lot of vegetarian food memories from my summer vacation visits to Philadelphia. Because my brother seemed impossibly cool — and he still is really, really cool — I would come back home to my mother gushing about the places I'd seen and, especially, the food I ate. I expect it was a bit annoying, except that my mother has always been an adventurous cook and eater, so I think she liked it when I got really excited about new flavors.
Matar paneer was one dish that I couldn't stop talking about at the end of that particular summer. I loved the creamy tomato-y sauce, the chunks of paneer (an Indian cheese), lightly crisp on the edges with a bit of a soft chewy texture, the grassiness of the green peas that would burst in my mouth with each bite. It was comfort food, pure and simple, that transcended all cultures.
While I desperately wanted to eat matar paneer every single day when I was little, alas, it was not to be. Instead, it became a treat whenever there was an Indian restaurant in the immediate vicinity and, eventually, my brother became quite a master of Indian cuisine, even cooking up a feast for his own wedding. Paneer is not very difficult to make, but these days it's also easy enough to even buy paneer in the store, so I can whip up a matar paneer pretty much any day of the week, if I so choose, with very little effort.
However, as you've probably figured out by now, I really love tofu, and it occurred to me that tofu would be a perfect substitute for paneer. I also think that tofu has a fantastic flavor when lightly fried in ghee, a kind of Indian clarified butter that is rich and nutty. And having recently been sent a case of Icelandic Provisions Skyr, a wonderfully thick yogurt, all of these elements suddenly came together for a beautiful Matar Tofu — an updated taste of my childhood.
Makes 4 servings
1 14-ounce loaf of extra firm tofu, drained and patted dry
1/3 cup ghee* or melted butter
2 medium onions, chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon fresh ginger, minced
1 tablespoon coriander seeds, crushed 4-5 dried bay leaves
2 green chiles, chopped
1 teaspoon turmeric powder
1 16-ounce can of crushed tomatoes
Salt to taste
1 cup Skyr Icelandic yogurt (Greek yogurt will work as well)
4 cups cooked basmati rice
1 cup green peas (frozen is fine)
1 tablespoon garam masala powder for garnish (optional)
Chopped fresh coriander or parsley for garnish (optional)
Cut the tofu into 1-inch cubes and fry in the ghee over medium heat until lightly golden brown and toasted. Remove the tofu and set aside, then add the chopped onions, garlic, ginger, and the crushed coriander seeds to the pan and fry until the mixture starts to become golden and fragrant. Stir in the bay leaves, chiles, and turmeric, then add the crushed tomatoes and tofu, stirring well. Allow to cook for about 5 or 6 minutes, then add salt to taste. Just before serving, take the pan off the heat and stir in the yogurt until completely blended**.
For the rice: prepare the rice according to the package directions, then add the green peas during the last 3 or 4 minutes of cooking. When the rice is done, stir the peas and rice together and, if you like, add a teaspoon of ghee and a pinch or two of salt to enhance the flavors.
To serve: Place a large spoonful of the rice and green peas on the plate, then top with a generous serving of the matar tofu and garnish with a dusting of garam masala powder and some fresh coriander or parsley.
* Ghee is available in many grocery stores. You can also make it easily at home.
** Yogurt often curdles in curry — this won't affect the flavor of the dish, but stirring in the yogurt just before serving, allowing it to warm through, off the heat, may help reduce the curdling.
Want to make this vegan? Just use canola or coconut oil instead of the ghee, or a butter substitute like Earth Balance, and use coconut milk instead of the yogurt. Add the coconut milk with the crushed tomatoes and allow it to thicken for a few extra minutes if needed.