Kali mirch (black pepper) paneer is a dish that embodies the spirit of Pijja Palace, the Indian sports bar I own in Los Angeles’ Silver Lake neighborhood. It’s pretty uncommon, it’s vegetarian, it’s Indian, and it can also be turned into a pretty bitching pasta sauce!
This dish has a lot of the warming spices you see everywhere this time of year — cinnamon, clove, and cardamom are all here, along with coriander, turmeric, saffron, and a healthy hit of black pepper. Although kali mirch paneer is typically served with naan, paratha, or rice, its sauce is a natural match for pasta: the creamy texture easily coats any shape you throw at it. Finished off with a little pasta water (it cannot be said enough that you should always reserve some pasta water), seasoned with salt, mixed with crumbled paneer, and garnished with fresh cilantro and crush peppercorns, it is not only a great pasta dish but also a perfect vegetarian Thanksgiving entree.
That said, if pasta isn’t your thing, you can also use the sauce with grilled chicken — serve it as a side for Thanksgiving. No matter what you do with it, this is a dope sauce that can do no wrong. I dig it.
Kali Mirch (Pepper) Paneer
2 tablespoons safflower oil
4-5 whole cloves
½ cinnamon stick (1 inch)
5-6 green cardamom pods
2 bay leaves
4 large shallots, thinly sliced
2 medium garlic cloves, sliced
1½ teaspoons fresh ginger, roughly chopped
1 small serrano chile, sliced
3 roma tomatoes, roughly chopped
1½ tablespoons coriander powder
½ teaspoon Kashmiri red chile powder
½ teaspoon turmeric powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups water, divided
1½ tablespoons fenugreek leaves (kasoori methi)
1 tablespoon ghee
1 teaspoon crushed black peppercorns, plus more for garnish
8-10 raw cashews
1 cup (4 ounces) paneer, finely crumbled
1 cup heavy cream
½ teaspoon lemon juice
Pinch saffron (6-8 strands)
¼ teaspoon garam masala
1 pound fusilli or rigatoni pasta
¼ cup fresh cilantro, finely chopped, for garnish (optional)
Step 1: Heat the oil in a large pan or wok over medium heat. Add the cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, and bay leaves and saute until fragrant, 1 minute or so. Add the shallots to the pan and saute until translucent, 4 minutes.
Step 2: While the shallots are cooking, mound the garlic, ginger, and serrano chile on a cutting board and mince them together into a fine paste. Alternatively, combine the ingredients in a mini processor or mortar and pestle and process to a paste. Add the ginger-garlic paste to the onions and cook until fragrant, 1 minute.
Step 3: Add the tomatoes and 1 cup of water to the shallots and bring to a simmer, stirring frequently, until the tomatoes are pulpy, 6-8 minutes. Add the coriander, red chile powder, turmeric, and salt and saute for another 3-4 minutes. Remove from heat, pick out the cinnamon and bay leaves and discard. Scrape the shallot mixture into a blender and blend until smooth. Set aside.
Step 4: Wipe out the pan and place over medium heat. Add the fenugreek leaves and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, 30 seconds. Put the leaves into a spice grinder and let them cool for 5 minutes. Grind to a fine powder and set aside.
Step 5: Return the pan to medium heat and add the ghee, peppercorns, and cashews. Cook, stirring frequently, until the nuts are lightly browned, 3-5 minutes. Turn off the heat. Hold a mesh strainer over the pan and pour the blender mixture through the sieve into the saucepan, discard solids left in sieve.
Step 6: Add 1 cup of water to the pan and bring to a simmer over medium high heat. Cook, stirring frequently, until the flavors have melded, 5 to 6 minutes. Add the fenugreek and cream to the pan and bring to a simmer. Stir in the lemon juice and saffron and simmer for 1 minute. Stir in the garam masala, cover, and keep warm over low heat.
Step 7: Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook until 1 minute before the recommended package cooking time. Drain, reserving ½ cup of the cooking liquid. Add the pasta to the saucepan and stir to coat with the sauce, adding the reserved cooking liquid if needed to loosen the sauce. Stir through the crumbled paneer and garnish with crushed peppercorns and fresh cilantro, if desired.
Avish Naran is the owner of Pijja Palace, a sports bar in Los Angeles.
Dina Ávila is a photographer in Portland, Oregon.
Recipe tested by Ivy Manning