Yamuna devi: Cooking Class: “Milk—The Miracle Food”
By Yamuna devi
(Yamuna Devi was the author of the award-winning cookbooks Lord Krishna’s Cuisine; The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking and Yamuna’s Table. She was a regular contributor to The Washington Post and Vegetarian Times.)
Like those who become lifetime gardeners from a first harvest, I fell in love with cows and milk some twenty years ago, when I got my first chance to take care of a cow. Fresh from a four-year stay in India, I ended up with a small group of devotee women in Oregon’s idyllic Rogue Valley. I wanted to keep living the Indian-village way of life, centered on the land, the cow, and the temple, so along with kértana and cooking came tilling and fencing. We even had a white Swiss-style barn, its walls decorated with stenciled designs and Sanskrit mantras.
Our Guernsey cow was born on the day that marks the passing of Çréla Bhaktisiddhänta Sarasvaté, Çréla Prabhupäda’s guru. We named her Bi-mala Prasad, Çréla Bhaktisiddhänta’s original name. The doe-eyed calf was sweet-tempered and beautiful, with a silky coat of fur and a delicate brown mouth. Two years later Bimala was a regal half-ton cow with a new calf at her side. She began giving an astounding 4-1/2 gallons of milk a day.
The ambrosial white liquid bore little resemblance to the variety bought in stores in paper and plastic containers. It was one of the purest ingredients I had ever used in a kitchen, full of subtle energy and outstanding flavor. After working with it daily for three years, I began to realize why this sättvic food (food in the mode of goodness) has long been valued as potent lever- age for longevity and physical strength.
MILK IN AN ÄYURVEDIC DIET
For decades we in the West have been encouraged to drink or serve ice cold milk at meals, or on its own as a pick-me-up. No wonder savvy health conscious people today link milk with allergies, digestive problems, and high fat and cholesterol. In India’s Äyurvedic tradition, milk is a liquid food and most beneficial when consumed properly. To aid in digestion, the Äyur Veda recommends boiling milk three times and then serving it hot, warm, or cool, but never ice cold.
People with a lactose intolerance find milk hard to digest. For some it tends to create mucus or congestion. If milk disagrees with you, try adding a slice of fresh ginger or a tiny pinch of turmeric to the milk before boiling it, and before you drink it sweeten it to taste with honey or raw sugar. Taken at night, hot ginger-milk calms the mind and nourishes the body. Adding cardamom to hot milk helps reduce its mucus-forming properties. A teaspoon of ghee in hot milk at bedtime helps relieve constipation.
Yogis and transcendentalists have long regarded milk as brain food. Many times Çréla Prabhupäda mentioned that milk nourishes the finer tissues in the brain for cultivating spiritual life. Like many in India, he sipped hot milk from a silver cup, a practice that further promotes strength and stamina. Confirming my experience, others who cooked for Prabhupäda have said that he requested milk a few ways—plain, slightly sweetened with honey or crushed rock-sugar, and on occasion prepared using the almond milk recipe below.
The type and quantity of dairy products in a healthy diet depend on your age, constitution, and power of digestion, and the season, but as a rule of thumb two cups of milk or milk products is sufficient, more for youths and active men.
In a Vedic diet, aside from plain milk, three milk products are prominent—yogurt and yogurt cheese, an unripened fresh cheese called pänér or chenna, and ghee or butter. I devoted my last column to butter and ghee. In this one we shall briefly explore the other two milk products.
An experienced Indian cook can prepare thousands of dishes featuring yogurt or fresh cheese. If you are following the cooking class series using the textbook Lord Krishna’s Cuisine, you will find verbose (I confess) but infallible information on making and using yogurt and fresh cheese. Read well and then cook.
YOGURT AND YOGURT CHEESE
Yogurt is nothing but milk transformed into solid curds by adding a live culture. Though twenty years ago few people ate it daily, today it is popular for all ages. Some good commercial yogurt is available, both organic and biodynamic. It is convenient when time is short. But I prefer homemade yogurt—for freshness, quality, and economy. A creative cook can use yogurt in place of higher-fat products such as cream, butter, and sour cream.
FRESH PÄNéR AND CHENNA CHEESE
I hope that fresh pänér (cheese curds) will one day be as available and as popular as tofu. In India fresh pänér is available commercially, though it is so easy to make at home that many prefer to do it that way. Whether known as pänér in India or fromage blanc in France, it is wonderfully versatile and does not disintegrate or melt when sauteed or pan-fried. Like tofu, it lends itself to a wide usage and in fact can be used in place of tofu in many international vegetarian entrees. In my latest cookbook, Yamuna’s Table, I came up with several entrees that use pänér and tofu interchangeably— good recipes for entertaining or special holiday meals.
In India the cheese is called pänér when pressed of excess whey, and chenna with a higher whey content. Milk transformed into fresh cheese is considered a protein, and like other proteins in the diet you don’t need much of it. Four ounces per person goes a long way in a stir-fry, casserole, or chunky tomato-vegetable sauce, though it is so good some aficionados have trouble stopping at portions three times that size.
If you have never sampled this cheese, at least try the recipe below and use it in your favorite dishes instead of tofu. Readers following the classes should try one of the many classic uses for pänér or chenna in the textbook. Made with whole milk, infused chenna is a cross between Italian ricotta and French boursin, delicious served on crackers, good bread, toasted capätés, or seasonal crudites.
The activities of the Supreme Lord Çré Kåñëa serve to highlight the importance of the cow and its milk products. Kåñëa appears as the son of cowherds and, along with all of the residents of Våndävana, eternally engages in wonderful pastimes focusing on herding and enjoying the by-products of cows. Whether you are a newcomer to this cuisine or a seasoned hand, take time out to read passages from Prabhupäda’s book Kåñëa, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Absolutely guaranteed to be rewarding.
Çréla Prabhupäda sometimes requested this milk. Nandlal Pareek, a teacher of classical Vaiñëava music, recommends it for maintaining a good throat and a powerful voice. The Äyur Veda recommends it for increasing energy. In America organic milk is available under the Horizon label, available at larger supermarkets.
- 10 raw almonds, soaked overnight and peeled
- 1 cup milk
- a pinch of ground cardamom and freshly ground black pepper
- 1–2 teaspoons honey
Combine the almonds and ½ cup of milk in a blender and process until fairly smooth. Add the remaining milk and the cardamom and pepper. Process on high for 3–4 minutes. Bring the milk to a boil three times. Sweeten. Offer to Kåñëa hot.
PÄNéR CHEESE WITH FLAVOR VARIATIONS
(Makes about 1 pound of pänér or 1-¼ pounds of chenna)
- 1 gallon milk
- ½ cup fresh lemon or lime juice, or 1 teaspoon citric acid in ½ cup hot water
Pour the milk into a large heavy-bottomed pot. If desired, add the ingredients for one of the optional variations listed below. Bring the milk to a rolling boil, stirring frequently. Remove from the heat, and gently stir in the lemon juice. If the milk does not at once separate into whey and white cheese, place the milk momentarily over the heat.
Drape a double thickness of cheesecloth over a colander resting in a sink. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the large curds to the colander; then pour the whey and smaller cheese bits through it. Gather the cheesecloth ends and rinse the cheese under warm running water.
To make pänér or chenna, drain the cheese over a bowl for 6 hours in a cool place or until it weighs about 1 pound (for pänér) or 1-¼ pounds (for chenna). Alternatively, place a 5-pound weight over the wrapped cheese and press to the desired weight on a slanted board. Store the cheese, tightly covered, in a refrigerator for up to 1 week.
- 2 tablespoons each: chives, parsley, tarragon, and minced chervil
- ½ teaspoon herb salt
- ½ teaspoon cracked white pepper
- 1/3 cup finely chopped cilantro
- 1 tablespoon minced, seeded jalapeïo chili
- 1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
- ½ teaspoon herb salt
Oriental Sesame Cheese
- 2–3 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds
- 1/3 cup minced fresh parsley
- 1 teaspoon toasted cumin seeds, crushed
- ¼ cup each: finely diced carrots, celery, and red, green, and yellow bell peppers
- 3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley or mixed herbs
- ½ teaspoon cracked black pepper
- ¼ cup finely chopped mint
- ½ tablespoon toasted fennel seeds
- ¼ cup teaspoon crushed red-pepper flakes
- ½ teaspoon herb salt