Photos by Zachary Cross
I love Indian food and saag paneer is one of my favorite dishes. I was always disappointed with the amount of paneer I would receive at restaurants. I was so excited to find out that I could easily make this dish at home.
One Christmas we received Madhur Jaffrey’s World Vegetarian as a gift. We had not heard of Jaffrey before this but she is a distinguished actress, from Merchant Ivory films (she and her former husband are credited with bringing together Merchant and Ivory), to, more recently, an episode of New Girl. While living in London in the 1950s she was disgusted by the food, both British and Indian, available at the time. She asked her mother for recipes from home and learned to cook them, improvising with available ingredients.
Thanks to publicity that went along with her first feature film, Shakespeare-Wallah, she was known as the “actress who can (also) cook”. She began writing cookbooks to help support her family and now is the author of at least thirty of them. Many of them are primarily Indian food, but World Vegetarian, as the name implies, has recipes from around the world. It’s organized first by chapters highlighting vegetarian ingredients, followed by chapters on types of dishes.
Cheese can be a challenging food to make, with many steps. There are many types of cheeses, though, and some are fairly simple to make. Cottage cheese, farmer’s cheese, queso blanco, and paneer are some of those. All you need are milk and an acid for paneer. Some people use lemon or lime juice, others, vinegar. This recipe calls for distilled white (I assume because of the lack of taste) but I always use unseasoned rice or white wine vinegar. I’ve always used cow’s milk, originally pasteurized and homogenized from the store, but now from my milk share. I understand that water buffalo and goat milk have been used as well, so if your milk of choice is goat you should be able to use that. You may want to Google for more information as I do not have any experience with it, though. If you are dairy-free you can substitute tofu for the paneer. I have made it that way and it is good, but I prefer paneer.
Saag paneer is a dish we typically associate with spinach, but saag is a word used for all greens and palak is the Hindi word for spinach. This is a dish made with whatever greens are available and/or preferred, making it a perfect market dish in the cooler months. Mustard is a traditional green used and often what we use, in combination with spinach, when we have it. Mustard is spicy when raw or lightly cooked but when long cooked it loses its heat and instead adds a depth of flavor that plain spinach lacks.
Although we have not used fenugreek leaves, we have otherwise made this recipe exactly as written. But it does lend itself well to variations, and not just in the greens - and that is how we usually make it. We make it very mild for our family but you can increase the heat to taste, either during cooking or at the table. I do not add the cornmeal any longer and have not noticed a difference myself. We use canned tomatoes in winter, and fresh in the warmer months. We rarely use the cinnamon but we might add additional spices such as curry leaves, basil, fenugreek powder (from the seeds), and toasted mustard seeds.
When it is time to mash or blend the saag, think about how you prefer it and choose a method that matches that. Many restaurants blend theirs to nearly a fine puree, probably accomplished with a blender. I prefer the texture well mashed with a potato masher, or an immersion blender used sparingly.
Serve this dish with rice or flatbread. Jeffrey made a split pea dahl to go with our supper and one of the kids topped their saag paneer with it. Not a traditional way to eat it but it makes a lovely photograph!
From Madhur Jaffrey’s World Vegetarian via Food.com
2 quarts rich whole milk
3-4 tablespoons distilled white vinegar
Put the milk in a large, heavy pan and set over medium-high heat.
Meanwhile, place a colander in the sink and line it with a clean dish towel or 3-4 layers of cheesecloth at least 24 inches square.
When the milk begins to boil, turn the heat down to low. Quickly add 3 tablespoons of the vinegar and stir. The mixture will curdle at this point, the thin, greenish whey completely separating from the white fluffy curds. If this does NOT happen, add the remaining tablespoon of vinegar and repeat the process.
Empty the mixture into the lined colander. Most of the whey will drain out.
To make small patty: allow most of the whey to drain out of the colander. As soon as the curds have drained, gather up the ends of the cheesecloth and twist to squeeze out as much water as possible. You will now have a round bundle and a well-twisted section of cloth just above it, which you can tie firmly with string or just leave tightly twisted.
Lay the cloth and its contents on a flat board set in the sink. Flatten the bundle into a pastry shape, making sure that the twisted section or knot holds the cheese in place. This section can be folded over to one side. Put another board on top of the patty. Now put a 5-pound weight on the patty and press for 3-4 minutes. The cheese is now ready. It may be unwrapped, covered with a clean, damp cloth, and kept in the refrigerator for 24 hour but is best if used immediately.
Cut Paneer into 1 x 3/4-inch cubes. Set aside until last step in recipe.
1 ¾ lbs fresh spinach, trimmed, washed, and coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons dried fenugreek leaves or 2 -3 handfuls of fresh fenugreek leaves (optional)
1 fresh hot green chili pepper, coarsely chopped
1 teaspoon cornmeal
3 tablespoons peanut oil or 3 tablespoons canola oil
¼ cup onion, finely chopped
1 ½ by 1-inch fresh ginger, peeled and finely grated to a pulp
1 cup tomatoes, finely chopped
1 ¼ teaspoons salt
1 ½-2 teaspoons ground roasted cumin seeds (Put a few tablespoons of cumin seeds in a small cast-iron frying pan over medium-high heat, stirred )
¼ teaspoon cayenne
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
Bring 1 cup of water to boil in a large pan. Put in the washed spinach, dried or fresh fenugreek leaves, if using, and green chile. Cover the pan and cook gently for 25 minutes.
Blend or mash the spinach until you have a coarse puree. Blend in the cornmeal and cook gently for another 5 minutes, stirring now and then.
In a separate frying pan, heat the oil over medium-high heat. When hot, add the onion and stir and fry until it begins to brown.
Add the ginger and stir once or twice, then add the tomatoes and cook over medium-low heat for 10 minutes, or until the texture thickens and the color of the tomatoes intensifies.
Stir the tomato mixture into the spinach mixture, then add the salt, roasted cumin, cayenne, and cinnamon and stir to mix.
Cook gently for 5 minutes.
Finally, add the cubed paneer, stir gently, and cook, covered, on low heat for 5 minutes. Serve hot.
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