It’s tough: you go to a good pizza place, even a great one (like Pulino’s), return home determined to replicate your funghi (mushrooms to you and me) pie, and fail miserably. And then of course, you hit the internet and a week later, after a web-induced pizza buying frenzy, the ups guy drops a sack of bricks and assorted tiles on your porch. Or elevator in this case.
So you stuff the oven full of bricks and heat it to 550, roll out your yeasty, lovely homemade dough, spread thin layer of toppings, slide it onto the burning hot stones. And pull out a halfway decent pizza; edible, even tasty but a pale imitation.
The fact is that, in some cases, there’s an excuse for one’s inability to recreate a magnificent professional culinary product, and this happens to be one of those cases. On the way to Pulino’s characteristically McNallyish facilities you pass by the open pizza area and are smacked by a wall of heat straight out of a Vietnam flick. Their pizza peels flying, the cooks whip pizzas in and out at a dizzying rate. Which means, naturally, that they cook instantly due to said blistering heat.
To attempt a home recreation of this scene would be extraordinarily dangerous, and thus we’re left with the perplexing issue of the perfect home pizza. Don’t let them fool you: it’s impossible.
If that’s impossible, imagine my frustration over tandoori chicken. A tandoor is a sort of in-ground, vertical pizza oven, which promotes the ideal environment for lots of Indian stuff, like chicken, lamb, vegetables, breads, etc. The surrounding heat donates a smoky char you’d never get via any other grilling or roasting method.
The greatest item to cook in a tandoor, however, is paneer, Indian cheese. The stuff is marinated in a bunch of spices and yogurt (I think-at least that’s what the Tamarind menu claims), cubed, threaded onto the skewer, and given that magical treatment. The result is a scrumptious, semi-soft bite, dry and semi-charred, coated with a bit of blackened spice and herbs.
The dish is good-great-enough to warrant some drastic home measures, but alas, reality sets in, and you have to settle for second best. Broiling was the only option, as the product must be dry with that grilled char. As with the Pulino’s pizza oven, the tandoor heat probably cooks the paneer in seconds. Not so at home, where, by the time your paneer is cooked, the spices are burned to hell.
And so I used the method preferred with many Indian dishes: fry the spices and dump them over the cooked item. Aside from the paneer being rock solid, it tasted okay. That’s when I gave in and read where some guy softened his paneer by soaking it in boiling water prior to cooking. Lo and behold it worked. The result was a (relatively) tender, browned plate of paneer livened up by a handful of fried curry leaves and spices.
While it wasn’t as good as the Tamarind version, at least my paneer was plenty tasty. Sometimes second best isn’t too bad.
Broiled, Spiced Paneer
Serves 2 as part of an Indian meal
8oz paneer, in ¾ inch cubes
¼ cup olive or canola oil
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
1 tablespoon urad dal
1 tablespoon mustard seeds
2 teaspoons crushed chili peppers
10 curry leaves
- Add the paneer to a medium bowl and cover with boiling water. Let sit at least an hour.
- Drain and dry paneer, place on a rack over a tray and broil for about 1 minute, until golden. It should be heated through. Place on a platter.
- Heat the oil in a small pan over medium high. When hot, add the spices except the curry leaves, chili, and salt. When the mustard seeds pop and the dal darkens, add the chili pepper and curry leaves, fry about 10 seconds and pour over the paneer. Season with salt, scatter over the cilantro and serve.