How to make paneer

I recently attended an Indian cooking class with a friend, and a couple of weeks later, we decided to put our new skills to the test. One of the things we needed was paneer. Paneer is that awesome cheese that comes embedded in saag paneer and other tasty Indian dishes. Instead of buying it, I decided to find out how to make my own. Turns out that it’s quite easy!

I used this paneer recipe. Believe it or not, paneer is just curdled milk! All you do is heat up whole milk, add an acid (I used lemon juice), and then once the milk curdles, you pour it through cheesecloth to strain out the whey and retain the curds. Here’s what it looks like:

MilkHeat up half a gallon (8 cups) of milk. This will yield about 1 cup of paneer.

CurdleMilk curdles!

The little brown bits are from the milk cooking on the bottom of the pan. The recipe says “stirring frequently” but really they mean “stirring constantly” to avoid this. I ended up fishing out as many little brown bits as possible, but it’s probably fine to leave them in (just visually a bit strange). Another method I later heard was to not stir at all and let the brown skin form at the bottom, then just leave it behind when you pour the mixture out.

DrainI didn’t actually pour the mixture out because the cheesecloth didn’t really cover my whole colander. Instead I skimmed the curds out and plopped them onto the cheesecloth, which worked just as well. I poured the remaining whey down the drain. Later I learned that you can save the whey to use when making bread for a little extra flavor.

SquishI twisted the cheesecloth around the curds and squeezed moisture out, then let it drip for a while, then put it on a plate, in the fridge, weighed down by other objects, to squeeze out more liquid. It worked famously!

I unwrapped the paneer and sliced it into cubes for the saag paneer.

DinnerHere is the final meal: tofu curry, basmati rice, samosa, saag paneer, raita, and homemade naan, plus cilantro monster sauce and mint “cocktail” (non-alcoholic) – the mango lassi came later. Phenomenal!

Breakfast versus afternoon tea

What is it about a tea that renders it suitable for a particular time of day?

It turns out that “breakfast tea” and “afternoon tea” have no particular standard definitions, but there are conventions. In general, a breakfast tea has a higher caffeine content, while an afternoon tea is meant to create “the perfect feel for a day winding down”. No amount of caffeine gives me a “winding down” feeling (just “winding up”!), but at least this way I can pick an afternoon tea if I want a smaller dose in the morning.

There’s also an interesting historical evolution of the content of a cup of tea that was dictated by the availability of tea imports from different parts of the world (originally China, then also India and Africa).

And what about English, Irish, and Scottish breakfast teas? Here’s a capsule summary (full details):

  • English breakfast: Full-bodied and rich. Originally a China black tea but now frequently includes a strong Ceylon tea component. May also include teas from Assam, Africa, and/or Indonesia.
  • Irish breakfast: More robust than English breakfast. Generally has a strong Assam component, giving it a malty flavor.
  • Scottish breakfast: Typically the strongest of the three. May include teas from China, Assam, Ceylon, Africa, and/or Indonesia.

A malty flavor in tea? I’ll have to pay more attention next time I get to try an Irish variant. The increase in strength for the Scottish breakfast blend is hypothesized to arise from their softer water (took more/stronger leaves to brew?).

Many sources characterize the different tea types (black, green, white, etc.) as having different amounts of caffeine (e.g., Choice Organic Tea’s tea guide). However, there are no industry standards, and tea packages do not typically indicating the caffeine content. Empirical studies have found that caffeine content ranges all over the map for all types of tea. Some example studies (interesting reading!):

Neither study did a breakdown of caffeine content for breakfast vs. afternoon teas, although Friedman et al. reported higher amounts of theaflavins (a beneficial antioxidant) in breakfast teas.

The Chin et al. study also found that brewing your tea in 8 ounces of water yields more caffeine than using 6 ounces (but about the same rate per ounce) and that at least half of the caffeine is extracted after just 1 minute of brewing.

(By the way: what an awesome research topic! Sounds like fun times in the lab.)

Poisoned by fructose


I just finished watching The Bitter Truth (video), and it really is as compelling, and frightening, as everyone says. In this lecture, Dr. Robert Lustig (Professor of Pediatrics at UCSF) gives us a pile of studies and a biochemistry analysis that point to this conclusion:

Fructose is a toxin.

I think we’ve all heard rumblings about how high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) might be bad for you, but Dr. Lustig lays it out in crisp detail. The video is long (1.5 hours) — it took me three sessions to finish — but it’s definitely worth watching. He explains how fructose (which sounds innocuous; after all, it comes from fruit!) is metabolized quite differently than glucose (our native sugar) is. In fact, fructose behaves more like a fat, which is why an ostensibly “low-fat” product, which has been pumped up with high-fructose corn syrup to make it palatable, often causes body fat to increase.

He also draws an interesting parallel between fructose and ethanol (another carbohydrate), which is metabolized like fructose in the liver (leading to fat deposition), with additional brain side effects (a buzz) lacking in fructose.

If you aren’t creeped out by his discussion of our country having obese *six-month-olds*, then you have a stronger constitution than I do.

He does offer a “lifestyle intervention” plan, which he uses to help obese kids:

1. Get rid of all sugared liquids — only water and milk
2. Eat your carbohydrate with fiber (fructose + fiber, which is how it manifests in actual fruit, is okay)
3. Wait 20 minutes for second portions
4. Trade screen time minute-for-minute with physical activity

He comments that #4 is the hardest one to achieve, which I can readily imagine! I don’t think I could do it myself, much as I might want to.

Now I’m compulsively checking labels on various foods and realizing a new limitation therein. While fats are now broken down into saturated and unsaturated fats, sugars are all lumped together (instead of breaking them down into glucose, fructose, lactose, maltose, etc.). Dr. Lustig’s point is that different sugars affect the body differently. If the ingredients include HFCS, you know it contains fructose. Plain sugar is sucrose, which is fructose + glucose, so you’re getting some of each. But what if it contains “corn syrup”? How about “evaporated cane juice syrup”? Or my beloved Raisin Bran Crunch, which has sugar, brown sugar syrup, corn syrup, and honey? It doesn’t look good.

Awareness is the first step. With informative sources like Dr. Lustig’s talk, we can look at our options in a new light and consider whether changes are worth making in our individual lives. Take a look at his talk. I found it very compelling.

Why drinking tea calms me down

I think I’ve finally figured out the longtime mystery about why tea both wakes me up and calms me down (anxiety-wise). I consistently feel a physical effect after drinking a cup of tea, as if a knot inside my stomach dissolves, and problems don’t seem quite as pressing, and it’s easier to be friendly and sociable. This sounds like the opposite of caffeine, which is known to increase irritability.

But just recently, I stumbled on a possible explanation. It’s not the caffeine at all! It’s something called L-theanine:

“Theanine is able to cross the blood-brain barrier and appears to have psychoactive properties. […] it appears to increase levels of the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA, and to a lesser degree, dopamine.”

L-theanine is often mentioned in conjunction with green tea, but it is also found in black tea. This article says green tea has about 8 mg per cup, while therapeutic doses of the stuff (for anxiety disorders) are more like 200-600 mg. Another source indicates 15-30 mg per cup, and that “L-theanine increases the production of dopamine and serotonin, two brain chemicals associated with alertness, pleasure, and a good mood.”

Further, there’s evidence of a lack of side effects (at least in rats):

“In 2006, a study conducted on rats administered super-high doses of L-theanine daily for a 13 weeks found no consistent or significant negative effects on behavior, food intake, body weight, clinical chemistry, urine, blood, morbidity or mortality.”

Therefore, I should be free to experiment away. And if theanine is the active agent, then I should get the same mood benefits (though not the wake-me-up effect) from decaf green tea. If only it were easier to do controlled experiments on oneself!

Peanuts are “heart healthy” — maybe

Today I noticed this text on my jar of peanuts:

Scientific evidence suggests but does not prove that eating 1.5 ounces per day of most nuts, such as peanuts, as part of a diet low in saturated fat & cholesterol & not resulting in increased caloric intake may reduce the risk of heart disease.

Got that?

The phrasing might make one think that peanuts are also low in saturated fat. But according to my jar, 1.5 ounces of them provides 3 grams of saturated fat, or 15% of your US RDA. So as long as that handful of peanuts is only 1/6 of your daily fat consumption, does that count as “low”? Notice you are also not permitted any increase in calories consumed, so if you add the peanuts, you have to take away 260 calories of something else. Or maybe not.

The Peanut Institute (yeah) goes further, calling peanuts “cardioprotective”. Potentially biased sources aside, there does seem to be a pile of studies out there connecting peanut “and tree nut” consumption to decreased heart risk factors (here’s just one). But the waffly nature of the wording struck me as odd.

Although I just noticed it, the FDA approved this “qualified” notice for peanuts in 2003. From the University of Nebraska’s Food Reflections newsletter:

A “qualified” health claim means FDA evaluated the data and determined “though there is scientific evidence to support this claim, the evidence is not conclusive.” A qualified health claim is issued by FDA when it is determined that consumers will benefit from more information on a dietary supplement or conventional food label concerning diet and health even though the claim is based on “somewhat settled science rather than just on the standard of significant scientific agreement, as long as the claims do not mislead the consumers.”

“Somewhat settled science”? Does this mean that there are studies that found different outcomes? I wasn’t able to find any in a quick search of google and google scholar. However, searching for “FDA” and “peanuts” alerted me to a 2009 salmonella outbreak in peanut butter.

I’m also annoyed by the phrasing “most nuts, such as peanuts,” given that peanuts are legumes, not nuts. It *does* seem to be the case that they’re associated with tree nuts in the relevant studies, but still, it’s irritating to see this miscategorization deliberately perpetuated. Would it have been so hard to say “most nuts, as well as peanuts”?

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