If you love spinach, you should be very happy right now. I know I am. Fresh spinach has been overflowing at the farmers market tables lately, which challenges me to use it in different ways.
Nearly every one of the farmers is growing it and seeing all that gorgeous green stuff has been making me crave creamed spinach. With the bit of cooler weather we have been enjoying, it’s also put me in the mood for spicy food.
Which made me think of saag paneer. I’ve never been “mad” about Indian food. Yes, I like it conceptually, but it doesn’t really like me all that much. I’m not sure why, so I just gave it up and decided to stick with Thai and Mexican food instead. But I am not opposed to making it at home and giving Indian food another shot.
When I think of Indian cooking, I think of dishes that require a lot of steps, dozens of spices and too much time to come together. But after investigating, it’s much easier than I thought. Indian cooking is based on the Ayurvedic approach which is a holistic way of cooking. The premise of an Ayurvedic diet is that everything we eat affects our mind and body in some way and should, therefore, be pure, natural and balanced. Balanced means that the six tastes need to all be present–sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter and astringent.
This is totally the way I believe we should approach food–pure, natural and balanced. Since I have a bag of fresh spinach from Springfield Farm in the refrigerator waiting patiently for some attention, I decided to give saag paneer a chance.
In its most basic description, saag paneer is the Indian take on creamed spinach–and everyone loves creamed spinach. Saag paneer features aromatics (onion and garlic), lots of flavorful spices such as ginger, tumeric, cayenne, garam masala, coriander and cumin as well as a serrano chile for a bit of heat. Paneer cheese is a very typical cheese used in Indian cooking and maintains its texture nicely while the yogurt gives a velvety mouth feel.
When it all comes together, it is a most harmonious dish that would be a terrific side for grilled chicken, lamb or even fish. If you’re looking for a vegetarian option, just spoon it generously over white or brown rice. (Or, you could do what I did and serve it along side leftover roasted cauliflower and carrots.)
If you’re looking for something different to do with the abundance of spinach that is available right now, why not spice up your life with a traditional Indian dish? This was my first try at Indian and it certainly won’t be the last.
Saag Paneer (Spinach with Indian Cheese)
While this dish may take require several steps and take a bit of time to prepare, I think it's worth it. If serving this for a dinner party or dinner for the family, it could easily be prepared in advance, leaving the last two steps (adding the yogurt and paneer) until ready to serve. The Ayurvedic approach of balancing the spices and flavors is exquisite--as there is no dominant flavor in this dish, but everything just comes together like a symphony. Serve it with grilled chicken, lamb or fish. Add grilled naan bread to complete the Indian themed dinner.
- 8 ounce paneer Indian cheese, cut into 1-inch cubes
- 1 teaspoon tumeric
- 1/2 teaspoon cayenne
- 1 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
- 3 tablespoon vegetable or olive oil + 1 1/2 tablespoons additional when cooking the aromatics
- 1 16-ounce package frozen chopped spinach if using fresh spinach from the farmers market, use two bags and wilt in a saute pan with oil; alternatively if you only have 1 bag of fresh spinach, cut the recipe in half
- 1 medium white onion finely chopped
- 4 garlic cloves minced
- 1- inch thumb ginger peeled and minced (about 1 tablespoon)
- 1 Serrano chile chopped finely and seeds removed (choose the pepper's size according to your taste for heat--less is always more)
- 1/2 teaspoon garma masala
- 2 teaspoons ground coriander
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1/2 cup water
- 1/2 cup plain yogurt whisked until smooth
In a large bowl, stir the tumeric, cayenne, salt and oil together.
Gently drop in the cubes of paneer and toss to coat thoroughly. Let the cubes marinate while you get the rest of the ingredients together and prepped.
If using frozen spinach, thaw spinach in microwave (5 minutes on high). If you are using fresh spinach, wash well and then wilt in a saute pan with olive oil over medium high heat.
Then puree in the food processor until smooth.
In the saute pan, place all of the paneer and spicy oil mixture over medium-high heat. You want the paneer to brown on each side and that will take a few minutes. Once once side is browned, flip to the other side.
When it's done, remove the paneer from the pan and onto a plate--leaving the spicy oil in the pan.
Add the remaining 1 1/2 Tablespoons of oil to the pan and then add the onions, ginger, garlic and chile. This is the part of the dish that takes the most time, but is also the most important. You want the aromatics to turn caramel-colored and that should take about 15 minutes. Don't cut this step short as this is where you really get the flavor. If you think the mixture is drying a bit, add a couple of Tablespoons of water and stir well.
After five minutes.
After 10 minutes.
After 15 minutes...this is the caramel color you want!
When you have reached the caramel-colored stage, add the garam masala, coriander and cumin. If you haven't already, now you should probably sprinkle a little water to the pan to keep the spices from burning. Cook, stirring often, for 3-5 minutes, until the raw scent of the spices cooks out and it all smells delicious.
Add the pureed spinach and stir well, incorporating the spiced onion mixture into the spinach. Add a dash of salt and 1/2 cup of water, stir well, cover the pan and continue cooking about 5 minutes.
Now, turn the heat off and add the smooth yogurt, a little at a time to keep it from curdling. Once the yogurt is incorporated into the spinach, add the paneer. Turn the heat back on, cover and cook 3-5 minutes or so until everything is warmed through. Serve immediately.