Saturday, March 7, 2015
The Hindu festival of Holi is a celebration of colors, and of love. So it’s a great time to get back to some of the Indian dishes I have in my backlog for you, my dear readers. And what better way to begin with than with one of my own love’s favorites from a cuisine we both adore?
My husband always wants to order saag paneer, that Indian restaurant favorite featuring spiced spinach and cheese. If you’ve never tried it, think good, old-fashioned American creamed spinach. Then add bold Indian flavors and cubes of paneer (a mild and firm white cheese found in most supermarkets and Indian stores). Saag paneer is savory deliciousness, if done right, achieving that amazing blend of flavors in the way that only great Indian food does. But most versions this side of the world are inadequately spiced, drowned in cream, and studded with flavorless cheese.
It was time to take matters into my own kitchen.
- 1 teaspoon turmeric
- 1/2 teaspoon cayenne
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
- 3 tablespoons safflower or other vegetable oil
- 8 ounces paneer, cut into cubes
- 1 1/2 tablespoons safflower oil
- 2 teaspoons mustard seeds
- 2 yellow onions, chopped (about 2 cups)
- 1 2-inch piece of ginger, peeled and grated (about 2 tablespoons)
- 6 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 jalapeño chile, finely minced
- Salt and pepper, to season
- 1 16-ounce package frozen chopped spinach
- 1 16-ounce package frozen chopped mixed greens (kale, collard, and mustard
- 2/3 cup water, split
- 4 teaspoons ground coriander
- 2 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon garam masala
- 3/4 cup water (if using frozen greens, use the water from defrosting)
- 3/4 cup plain yogurt
- 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
- ~1/4 cup cream (optional)
Prepare paneer. Whisk together the spices, salt, and oil to combine. Cut the paneer into bite-sized cubes and toss in the spice mixture to coat. Set the cubes to marinate while you get the rest of your ingredients together and prepped.
In the meantime…Chop the onions, grate the ginger, and mince the garlic and jalapeño. Get your spices out and measured. (This set-up and prep is called “mise en place,” in case you’re wondering, and it’s good practice to keep things organized when you’re cooking.) Thaw the chopped greens in a microwave-safe dish, about 7-8 minutes.
Brown paneer. Heat a large pan to medium and pour in the paneer, creating one layer. Toss the cubes every couple of minutes to brown the cheese on all sides. They should be fried and crispy on the edges but still soft in the middle. Remove the cheese from the pan and set aside.
Sauté veggies until caramelized. Add 1 1/2 tablespoons oil to the same pan; it will still have some of the marinade in it, which is fine. Add the mustard seeds and cook until they pop, then add the onions, ginger, garlic and chile pepper; season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until golden brown and caramelized, about 25 minutes. After about 15 minutes, add about 1/3 cup of water so the mixture doesn’t dry out.
Stir in spices, greens, and yogurt. Increase the heat to medium then add garam masala, coriander, cumin, and 1/3 cup water, stirring about 3-5 minutes to combine. Mix in greens and about 3/4 cup water, simmering for about 5 minutes. Stir in yogurt, paneer, and lemon juice, mixing to combine. Taste, preseason, and add a little cream if desired.
Cooking notes. My summer version of this dish includes a mix of whatever greens inspire at the farmers’ market, but frozen works beautifully and is much quicker. I often add a cup or two or garbanzo beans (chick peas) for a nutrient and texture boost. And you could swap tofu for paneer for the same reason, or just because tofu is delicious. Or use a combination of both tofu and paneer. (Try your hand at making your own paneer if you like, as shown here.) Finally, watch the cayenne and jalapeño if you don’t like spicy food; just cut back or omit. Make it yours, and do what you love!
Most Indian dishes are quite labor intensive. Many different spices and, often, a lot of time, are required. (Case in point: Navratan Korma. But it’s also one of the tastiest and most rewarding dishes I’ve ever made.) This recipe has many fewer steps and ingredients so it’s a fabulous introduction to Indian cooking for those that want to break into this ravishing cuisine with its unique flavor combinations. (More on the chemistry of all that is here.)
I have a lot of Indian cookbooks and influences that inform my recipes, my husband’s late grandmother among them as well as a recent trip to India. This dish draws upon many of these to create an authentic dish, but the fried paneer (!?) comes courtesy of Aarti Sequeira: those spicy little cubes are a friggin’ revelation, quite possibly the ultimate Asian-inspired bar snack.
Whether you’re Hindu or not, the festival of colors and love celebrating the beginning of spring is certainly something everyone can get behind, and this beautiful green dish is a perfect choice for the holiday.
And I have one very happy husband.
PS. It’s okay if you also read the title as “Holy Saag Paneer!” It is awesome, after all.