I am absolutely thrilled to have my friend Johanne do a guest blog for me! She has so much going on and yet made time for Cheese and Toast. Her bio and pic (including a pic of donuts) is here and her blog Fashion in Motion is a fave–not only because of the fabulous content but I love Johanne’s witty and fun writing style. You shall see as you read from this point on….. ENJOY, SR.
As a gal who likes to improvise in the dressing room and in the kitchen, following a recipe to the letter is an exercise in restraint. I can’t resist substitutions, additions, modifications. I’ll use a silicone spatula instead of a wooden spoon. I’m such a rebel. Cue the music: I did it my way.
Perhaps that’s why I’ve always enjoyed cooking Indian food: it’s so flexible to adding more of this, less of that, turn up the heat or throw in an extra veg. But every now and again and I take on a new recipe and force-feed myself a little discipline. I do my best to follow it to the letter and not dispute salting the water or measuring only one teaspoon of vanilla.
And so it was with this in mind that I rolled up my sleeves and made Saag Paneer. Most people look shocked and a little scared when I tell them I made Saag Paneer. It is fitting that we reveal the mystery of the saag right here right now.
I followed the recipe here at Active For Life and it boasts a healthy take on the Indian classic. Having made Indian dishes before, I thought, piece of cake. It is very easy- but not necessarily a project I recommend undertaking on a weeknight unless you’re up to eating at 9pm. It will be an event: so pour yourself a drink and start washing your spinach.
I set a very large pot of salted water to boil and while that was heating up, I washed and dried just over two pounds of fresh spinach. That in itself took a long time and when I make this recipe again, I may just buy it pre-washed.
I prepared just over two pounds of fresh spinach that I chopped into 3-inch long segments
Before blanching the spinach, I coarsely chopped it in half or thirds depending on the length of the leaves. I figured that this way when I would blend them there wouldn’t be a chance of having long strings of spinach filaments- imagined or real, the anticipation caused a coarse chop (see- I just can’t help myself throw in extra steps.)
Okay, when the water is at a full boil you drop your spinach in it, stir to get it all wet and then you wait and watch with the lid off (helps tremendously).
Blanching spinach is easy- just let the water come back to a boil and you’re done
When the water begins to boil again, strain the spinach and discard the water. In my case, I was hesitating about blanching it all at once because I had so much spinach and perhaps had not chosen a large enough pot, so I blanched in batches. To do this, just delicately scoop out the blanched spinach from the water and let the water come back to a roaring boil before throwing in the next batch. Worked really well for me.
The goal of blanching is to soften the spinach, not kill it to mush
After that bring in the high-powered machine: blend the spinach in a food processor at high speed. It won’t be super smooth so you’ll want to add water at the rate of one tablespoon at a time, then blend again, then add water until it’s looking smooth to you. It won’t be like a creamy-smooth, but it should be well-blended and the spinach particles quite small. No chunks, no filaments.
I was using my mini-food processor and had to blend my spinach in batches. See? Anything is possible
After that comes the fun stuff: on medium heat, melt 2 tbsp of butter in a large pan with high sides. Add ¾ tsp of cumin seeds and cook until slightly browned and fragrant, stirring occasionally. Careful not to let these babies burn. Add 1 diced cooking onion and sauté until golden, roughly 10 minutes. Stir in 3 cloves of grated garlic and 2 tea spoons of grated ginger root. Cook for one minute.
By this time it will smell so good in your house you’ll be thinking you can do this
When the onions are nice and golden, stir in ¼ cup of cilantro finely chopped, ½ tsp each of salt, ground coriander and turmeric. Stir in ¼ tsp of cinnamon and cook 30 seconds until fragrant. Add ½ cup of fresh chopped tomatoes and cook until they reduce and break down, roughly 5 minutes.
I made the execute chef decision to pan-fry the paneer cubes at this step in the game
Set aside the tomato mixture in a bowl and return the frying pan to the stove, adding one teaspoon of oil and set that to medium heat. Dice 1 package of paneer into bite-sized cubes and add that to your hot pan. I added two cloves of grated garlic to them and flipped the cubes until golden crispy on two or more sides and then pulled those aside. This paneer-frying is a deviation that is perfectly acceptable (weeks later I discussed this with chef Vikram Vij who said it’s okay, but you can also just add your paneer later as the recipe instructs and that way it will be more melt-y, less-cube-y in texture. Your choice.).
Mmm paneer- a pressed cheese much like cottage cheese brick and commonly used in Indian cooking. I didn’t make the paneer and you don’t have to, either; it’s found at most large supermarkets.
I returned my pan to the heat and picked up where I left off: in it went the tomato mixture which I brought back to medium heat while stirring, and then added the reserved spinach. Cook for 3 minutes.
See me using a wooden spoon! I’m not breaking all the recipe rules
After that you should be looking at it and asking yourself if the mixture is saucy. If too thick, add water a few tablespoons at a time and stir. Stir in 1/3 cup of plain yogurt (I used fat-free Greek yogurt and threw in a little extra), the paneer cubes, and 2 tsp of lemon juice.
Watching this coming together is like waiting for the finale to a figure skating routine and you will get a quad
Bring to a simmer, then cover and cook for 5 minutes. Uncover, cut the heat, stir and admire your work.
Ta-da! It will be magic and even the international judges will give you full points
Serve with rice or naan bread, or in my case, eat it straight up with a side of Panch Churan chutney (see top photo).
Thoughts on leftovers….
For me it was the best on the night-of, the leftovers were delicious but the creaminess never matched the same bliss as when the sauce came out of the pan. Chef Vikram Vij told me that flavours will intensify over time, too.
Come over here to see the full instructions to make this Saag Paneer and feel like an Indian figure-skating sensation.