Remember that time? The first time you went to an Indian restaurant (for buffet, naturally) and your eyes and nose were overwhelmed by unfamiliar colours and smells? Maybe you were more daring than me, but I hesitated when I swirled the ladle around in the tray of saag paneer. White cubes of something (I didn’t know what) hidden in a thick green soup of unknown origin. My gut reaction was repulsion, and I believe I made a comparison involving swamp slime.
As is often the case, I was wrong. So wrong. Perhaps the subtleties were lost in the dense haze of 2 dozen dishes mixing their smells in the same room, but saag paneer, despite its appearance, is a dish for kings. Or me. The paneer is rich with crisp, chewy edges and pillow-y center. The spinach is softened and thickened with cream, flavoured with a spice blend that is a good balance between earthy and delicate. It seems fairly simple (cheese+spinach+cream), but the flavours are layered and complex.
The cooking process is very easy, as well, but will require a few things – a food processor or blender for pureeing parts of the sauce, and finely ground spices. I use my spice grinder so often now that I’m starting to take it for granted, but I can’t recommend them enough. The difference between freshly ground whole spices and packaged powders is quite noticeable, so a proper grinder is worth the investment if you’re a spice-lover like I am. Particularly if you’re planning to spend any serious time making Indian food at home – a spice grinder for 50 bucks can radically improve your cooking. Speaking of which…
- 500g spinach, chopped coarsely (pieces should be no larger than a half-inch square)
- 450-500g paneer (or one full batch of this recipe) plus a few tbsp of oil for frying
- 2 tbsp ghee or vegetable oil
- 1 medium-sized onion, cut in half and sliced thinly
- 6 cloves garlic, chopped coarsely
- 1.5″ by 1″ by 0.5″ piece of peeled ginger (the ratio of garlic to ginger should be about 2 : 1, so approximate it as best you can), chopped coarsely
- 2 tsp coriander seeds
- 1/2 tsp cumin seeds
- 3 cloves
- the seeds from one small green cardamon pod
- 1/2 of a bay leaf, or one small bay leaf
- 1/2 tsp turmeric
- 1/4 to 1/2 tsp cayenne powder
- 1 cup water
- 1 1/2 tsp coarse salt
- 1/3 cup of half and half cream
- 1/2 tsp garam masala (use this one, or if you’re using a generic version, add a pinch of cinnamon)
What you will need: large saute pan with a lid, non-stick frying pan, chef’s knife and cutting board, measuring cups and spoons, small food processor or blender, spice grinder / mortar and pestle, a few bowls to manage the ingredients
- Prepare the paneer. Cut the cheese (ha!) into cubes anywhere from about 1/2″ to 1″, but do try to keep them all roughly the same size. This looks pretty. In the non-stick frying pan, add some oil, and turn the heat to medium-low (4 on my dial). Once the oil is hot, add the paneer cubes in batches and fry each side until lightly golden-brown (see photos). Watch out for oil spatters; I burned my hand, like, 3 times doing this. When at least 3-4 sides are golden, remove the cubes from the pan and put them in a bowl. You could drain them on paper towels if you’re picky about that kind of thing.
- Prepare the ingredients. Chop the spinach (see above for measurement), and reserve in a large bowl. Chop the onion, garlic and ginger, and keep in one bowl together. It only needs to be chopped coarsely at this point, since this is the sauce that we will puree after it’s cooked. Grind together the coriander seeds, cumin seeds, cloves, cardamon seeds, bay leaf, turmeric and cayenne. We’ll call this our masala, because that is what it is. Keep that aside in a small bowl. The remaining ingredients we can deal with when we get to them.
- Put the saute pan on the burner, turn the heat to medium (5-6 on my dial) and add the ghee to the pan.
- Once the oil is hot (give it a few minutes – the onions should sizzle when they touch the oil – if they don’t it’s not hot enough), add the sliced onion, and the coarsely chopped garlic and ginger. Let these fry until the garlic and ginger is fragrant, and the onion is lightly browned and softened. Depending on the size of your pan, this could take 5-10 minutes. I don’t know, so keep an eye on those pieces of garlic – don’t let them burn! While this stuff is cooking, get your food processor ready.
- Once the onions, garlic and ginger are cooked, pour them into the food processor. Add our masala (step 2) to the onions. Process this mixture until it’s a smooth, yellowish puree. Or as close to it as you can get with your devices.
- There’s your curry base. Pour that back into the pan, and keep it on medium heat. Add the 1 cup of water. It should start to bubble fairly quickly. Add a handful of the chopped spinach, and put the lid on the pan. This will steam the spinach, wilt it, and then leave you room to pour more spinach in. Do this in about 4-5 batches – add a handful of spinach, put the lid on, wilt the spinach, repeat. Keep stirring the spinach into the curry base, as well.
- Once you get all the spinach into the pan, stir the spinach sauce, cover the pan with the lid, and let it cook for about 15 minutes, until the spinach softens into the sauce.
- When the spinach is cooked, remove the lid and stir in the salt, 1/2 tsp of garam masala, and the cream. Mix it well. Then add the fried paneer cubes, and gently stir them into the sauce. Let this mixture cook, uncovered, for about 5 or 6 minutes, until the paneer cubes are hot again, and the sauce has thickened somewhat. Then remove the pan from the heat, and serve immediately.
That’s it. This is a classic North Indian dish, so it goes really well with breads like naan, chapati, or other rotis. Enjoy!
Make it Vegan: substitute the paneer for fried tofu cubes, the ghee for vegetable oil, and the cream for thick soy milk. Mmm.