We’ve had a frightful winter this year. Freezing temperatures and heavy snowfall kept us indoors over the past couple of months. But a chilly spring has given way to days of warm, brilliant sunshine.
Summer is here. We’ll see if it decides to stay a while.
Summer is also the time when baby bundles of spinach appear regularly at the farmers markets. I eat spinach in my salads year round, but I really enjoy them spiced up in some way. Spinach sautéed with ginger and garlic, and then mixed with lentils. Potatoes stir fried with turmeric and coriander and topped with spinach. Finely chopped spinach added to roti dough right before being cooked up on the griddle. Yum! I love it all. Popeye would be proud.
Palak paneer or Saag paneer needs no introduction. It is a perennial favorite among those who frequent Indian restaurants. My mum would often make this when we had unexpected guests because it never fails to impress, yet is so simple to put together. If you have paneer handy, all it takes is 15 minutes from start to finish to get a delicious Saag Paneer to your table.
I’ve found restaurant versions can be hit or miss. Some can be delightfully creamy with a bright green sauce and tender cubes of paneer (farmer’s cheese). On the other end of the taste spectrum you’ll find rubbery, freezer burnt cubes of tastelessness in a bland mush of overcooked spinach. My version uses homemade paneer which guarantees its freshness and quality. It is also devoid of the globs of ghee or butter that are customary in restaurant preparations, so it’s healthier. A blend of simple, whole and ground spices; and a caramelized Indian “sofrito” of aromatics add flavor. A small amount of cashew nut puree adds all the requisite creaminess you’ll need.
The words “Saag” (leafy greens) and “Palak” (spinach) are used interchangeably for this dish. While typically spinach is used, you could substitute any greens of your choice. I have semi-succesfully used kale in the past. The texture wasn’t quite the same, because kale will not grind down to a puree easily but it hit all the right notes flavor wise.
Traditionally Palak Paneer is served with Roti (wholewheat flatbread) or Pulao (rice cooked with whole spices). However I don’t see why this couldn’t be an exotic alternative to creamed spinach.
PS: Paneer is very easy to make at home. You can find my recipe here.
- 1 bundle fresh spinach, washed and roughly chopped
- 2 cups cubed paneer (recipe on this blog)
- ½ onion, finely chopped
- 1 inch piece of fresh ginger, finely chopped
- 2 cloves of fresh garlic, finely chopped
- 1 small serrano pepper, chopped finely
- ½ tsp cayenne pepper (optional, if you like it spicy)
- 1 tsp garam masala
- 1 tsp whole cumin or powder
- 3 tsp cooking oil (canola, olive, sunflower)
- 3 tbsp water
- 4-5 cashews soaked for 15 minutes and then ground to a paste
- Salt to taste
- Heat 2 tsp of oil in a non stick pan.
- Quickly sear your paneer cubes in the oil. Paneer has a tendency to stick to the cooking surface so non stick works best.
- This step is completely optional. You could spray your paneer cubes with cooking spray and place under a hot grill for a minute or two for each side. Or you could skip this step altogether.
- Place your fried paneer cubes on a paper towel and set aside.
- In the same pan (don’t worry about errant bits of paneer) add an additional 1 tsp of oil. Sauté onions, garlic, ginger and serrano pepper for 5 minutes on gentle heat till onions are lightly browned. Caramelizing this mixture will add sweetness to your sauce.
- Set the flame to the lowest setting and add cumin seeds or powder, cayenne (if using) and garam masala. Stir for 20 seconds – you don’t want the spices to burn.
- Stir in spinach and stir till leaves start to wilt.
- Season with salt and take off the heat – allow to cool for 5 to 10 minutes.
- Place the spinach mixture with 3 tbsp of water in a food processor and pulse it till a sauce begins to form. Add more water if required. I leave my sauce a little chunky but you can puree it completely if that is your preference.
- A few minutes before serving, introduce the sauce back into the pan just to warm it up and stir in cashew paste for creaminess.
- Fold in paneer and enjoy!
Fresh spinach can be substituted with a pack of frozen spinach.
Deseed the seranno pepper for flavor without the heat.