Saag Paneer

Spinach & homemade cheese! Ain’t nuttin’ better!

There are few good uses for frozen spinach, but Saag Paneer is one (creamed spinach, of course, is another). I love this dish – it’s rich and silky and flavorful, earthy and hearty and zesty. Made well it’s balanced and nuanced. I order it whenever I go out for Indian food. The problem is that I rarely go out for Indian; LA is sparsely populated with good Indian restaurants, quite unlike New York City or even Atlanta where I grew up. When I first moved to LA some fifteen years ago I had to learn how to make some good Indian grub on my own!

One of my best friends in grade school (and up to now, as we’re still very good friends) is Indian (Bengali, I believe) and I loved after-school snacks at his house. No peanut butter in celery sticks or hard chocolate chip cookies at Amit Bose’s house! His mother Sabita would leave pappadum and shrimp curry, basmati rice and a bit of lamb, perhaps. I learned early on how good Indian home-cooking could be, which probably spoiled me for the mediocre stuff later in life. Just writing about this reminds me of how fragrant his house smelled — curry, ginger, garlic, onions, incense! So exotic! Which is probably what my friends thought my house smelled like when my own Asian mom was cooking. But these aromas were different and intriguing.

Anyway, I became a lover of Indian food. And every once in a while I really crave it. I’ve been on a fresh cheese kick lately and earlier in the week with my fiance Regina I made a couple of batches of paneer (like a firm cottage cheese) that is used in Indian cuisine in many savory dishes. To continue this recipe you need to refer back to the post Project: Paneer and either make a batch or find a good Indian grocery store to buy a substitute.

One final note before getting into it. I don’t consider this recipe “finished”. Oh, it is in the sense that you’ll get a great finished dish out of it, but I believe there’s more to learn here. Every recipe for Saag Paneer I’ve read is different from the last. There is no set recipe as far as I’m concerned — some produce thicker or soupier versions, some spicy, some not, some had a higher cheese-to-spinach ratio than other recipes. So make adjustments for your own palate. Try to understand the “hows” of the recipes, and maybe worry less about the “whats”; that is, feel free to change the spicing around, alter the size of the paneer cubes. Ya know, play with your food!

You’ll need:

1 pound frozen spinach
1 serrano chili, stem cut off
small handful of fresh cilantro
2/3 cup of water
2/3 pound fresh panner, cut into 3/4-inch cubes
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon yellow curry powder
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
1/4 teaspoon turmeric powder
2 tablespoons ghee (see below) or vegetable oil
1 medium onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, smashed and minced
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
2 teaspoons ground coriander
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon hot chili powder
1 teaspoon garam masala

Now do this:

Defrost the spinach and squeeze out excess water. Put spinach, chili, cilantro and water into a blender and puree until the spinach is well-chopped but still a little chunky. Add more water to the blender, if you need, to blend it.

Now, coat paneer with salt, curry powder, chili powder, and turmeric. Let sit for 10 minutes. In a large non-stick saucepan over medium-high flame, heat the ghee until just about smoking. Fry the cheese cubes, turning frequently and gently, until browned all over. Remove from pan.

In the same ghee, saute the onion, garlic, and ginger. Saute over medium heat until softened and golden brown, maybe fifteen minutes. Add the dried spices and saute until very fragrant, about five minutes stirring constantly.

Add the spinach puree and cook, stirring frequently, about ten minutes. Add water as needed; your spinach puree should not be soupy, but it shouldn’t be dry either. You’ll have to find the consistency you like the best. Now add the cooked paneer back into the pan. Gently (I use a rubber spatula.) fold the cheese cubes into the cooked spinach.

Serve with fragrant basmati rice or naan. Some raita or chutney might be nice too!

Fresh spiced paneer browning in ghee.

Ghee is the most commonly used cooking fat in India. It’s essentially clarified butter with a slightly nutty character. Very easy to make. Take a pound of butter and bring it to a boil in a small pot over medium-high, which takes a couple of minutes. Now reduce the heat to medium and cook for another eight to ten minutes. During this period the butter will foam twice and turn a golden color. Turn off heat and strain out the solids through cheesecloth into a metal bowl or ceramic dish. Chuck the cheesecloth. You can store ghee in a airtight container for up to two weeks at room temperature. Longer in the fridge.

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