This morning I wanted a quick keto breakfast. Something warm and satisfying that I could eat while I worked. Donald had already made a batch of bacon, a family brand called Nueske’s that we’re lucky enough to buy local here in Wisconsin. He had gotten up earlier than usual, and when my alarm woke me, that signature aroma — deep, almost sweet, kissed with apple wood smoke — was in the air.
I came down to find our son was nibbling from a plateful of it as he watched a pair of his favorite YouTubers playing a Pokemon Minecraft variation — his fave way to start off a school day. I couldn’t resist tarrying beside him for at least a half a slice, though I was planning to eat breakfast a little later. Okay, a slice and a half.
Somehow there was still bacon an hour later, the time I had planned to breakfast. The bacon filled the bill for finger food I could take to the computer. BTW this is where having cloth napkins really comes in handy. No one likes a greasy mouse. (Unless you’re a cat, I suppose.)
In the fridge, I spied paneer, from our recent trip to an Indian grocery store in a nearby town. Perfect. I decided to pan-fry them in ghee.
Paneer (or panir) is sometimes called Indian cottage cheese, but it’s unlike the image that conjures. It’s not a spoonable item you’d buy in a tub. It’s a solid brick of cheese, about as solid as cheddar or Swiss. But it’s not aged, so the flavor is mild. The fresher your paneer, the better, and you can even make it yourself fairly easily. (I’ll cover that another time.) However, you should be able to find it anyplace that sell Indian groceries. In my experience, storebought paneer is quite excellent, and certainly more keto convenient.
The magic of cooking with paneer is that is doesn’t melt. You can pan-fry or deep-fry paneer, and you’ll get a toasty, tasty surface. You can simmer it in a sauce, as with paneer tikka or panner curry, and it will hold its shape while it soaks up flavor. You don’t have to use an Indian-style recipe. Because it’s mild in flavor, it lends itself to any cooking style at all. It’s ideal for protein-rich Indian vegetarian keto cooking, in fact.
So I pulled out our 8″ chef knife and cut a few half-inch slabs off the block of paneer cheese. Carefully, making sure to keep the slabs even. Now that I know how to do that, it’s easy; it just requires attention in the right places.
The trick to making slabs that are uniformly thick is to first line up your knife edge perpendicular to the cheese, then look at the blade and make sure it’s perfectly vertical. As you bear down, slide it forward a little. Keep your eye on the side of the cheese. Watch as the knife goes straight down.
The mistake I made for years was to keep my eyes on the top surface of whatever is I was cutting through. But this doesn’t make any sense. I’d look at the result, and it would almost always be vexingly diagonal. When you look along the side, you’re tracking the actual direction you’re moving your knife through.
This tip works for anything you want to cut even slices or slabs of — butternut squash, onions, hard-boiled egg, summer sausage, and
If you find that your knife tears through cheese instead of slicing, your knife is dull. I talk about how to keep your knife sharp in The worst kitchen advice you’ll always get: don’t sharpen your own knives.
You might find that it’s difficult to cut an even piece. Perhaps your knife wants to skip out and away from the cheese, and you can’t get the blade to dig in properly. Or the blade leaves marks in the cut where it stopped moving, or changed direction, or where you had to saw it back and forth. Or you have a hard time getting a good enough grip to push down through firm cheese, your knife is too small. When a knife has a slender handle, you can only grip with the strength of your fingers. You need the strength of your whole hand.
Good tools make cooking easy. In this case, you need a sharp knife with a hard, steel blade, and it needs to be big and heavy enough. Then you can push through dense material with ease. That’s why I reached for our 8″ J.A. Henckels chef knife. It’s worth its price new, but this is one of our best thrift store finds ever. The Victorinox chef knife I recommend inHow to Chop Like a TV Chef Without Spending a Fortune on Knives
The ideal knife for cutting through firm cheese feels heavy in your hand, with a triangular, wedge-shaped blade long and wide enough that you can easy bear down atop it with your free hand. The handle should be large enough that you can wrap your knife-wielding hand around it to make a sturdy fist.
I cut down the slabs into rectangles about 1/2″ x 1.5″ x 2″ — sort of like narrow, short dominoes. If I were simmering the paneer in something like paneer tikka, cubes would make sense. For finger snacking, this shape made sense. Plus there would be plenty of surface to brown with only a single flip. Browning every surface of a cube? Hm, that would be five flips…no thanks!
Meantime, I had some ghee heating in a cast iron skillet. It only took a minute or so on each side to bring the paneer to a lovely brown. The paneer wedges kept their shape utterly.
A taste test revealed that paneer on its own is a little too mild for me, even though the fresh cheesiness was wonderful. After also experimenting with dipping in tamari (soy sauce) and dusting with seasoned salt, I found that just the lightest dusting of fine salt was all that was needed to awaken the flavor. Next time, I’ll add the salt before frying, so it gets a better chance to permeate the cheese before the surface is sealed with oil.
While I was at it, I made a few wedges of Swiss the same way, just to compare how the two cheeses behaved in a hot pan of ghee. The Swiss cheese melted into a bubbly puddle that, when cool, became a delicate, lacy cracker that exploded with Swiss cheese flavor. I’ll devote space to making perfect keto crackers and crisps out of cheese another time.
Now I had toasty warm paneer, crisp Swiss crackers, and bacon to fuel my morning as I sat down to my laptop with a cup of strong coffee. Good thing I had that cloth napkin, too.
Pan-Fried Keto Paneer in Ghee
- 1 or 2 teaspoons of ghee (or more — any amount will work)
- Paneer (panir, or Indian cottage cheese)
- Fine salt, like salt for popcorn and nuts (or any salt will do)
Place ghee (or butter, or coconut oil, or any healthy fat) in a heavy skillet.
Set the skillet to heat up over a burner on medium. Be careful if you’re using butter, as it burns more readily than ghee.
Slice paneer into pieces about 1/2″ thick and whatever shape and size you prefer. You can make triangular wedges, long sticks, rectangles, squares, or whatever works for your purpose.
Lightly salt the paneer.
When the ghee is hot enough that a tiny drop of water sizzles when you flick it in, add the paneer. Gently, so you don’t splash it on yourself.
Flip the paneer after about a minute. You’ll want a turner that’s thin and rigid enough to separate it from the pan.
Fry on the other side.
When both sides are streaked with pale golden brown, you’re done. Darker is also good, but less tender.
Remove it to your plate. Pour any ghee left in the pan over it.