Make, Jane, make!: Quick Saag Paneer


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Friday, February 25, 2011

Quick Saag Paneer

We love food at our house. Before the kids came along, dabbling in different cuisines and cooking techniques was a favourite past time. However, living in a city where fairly authentic restaurants can be found serving food of all cultures and nationalities, makes for a very lazy home cook. Want Thai? Let's zip up the street. Craving shawarma? Head to a local Persian place. Fresh naan? Let's choose an Indian joint. So, although I could cook many of my craving foods at home, I would only do so when the fancy hit me. And usually the fancy would hit so close to dinner time that we would often end up eating out.

Strangely enough, it was becoming a mom and having my kids suck all the energy and time out of my life, that helped me find the time and energy to cook more of my favourite meals at home. Maybe it's because we don't eat out as often anymore ($$$), so I need to recreate those dishes at home. Maybe it's because I appreciate more the value of eating organic home cooked meals when we can. Or maybe it's because young taste buds don't always appreciate the restaurant chef's seasonings. In the case of one of our most cuisines, Indian, it's probably all of the above.

I have a beloved Indian cookbook, 1000 Indian Recipes, which is a great starting point for anyone trying to learn about authentic Indian cooking. Over the years, I've tried many recipes from the book and all have been big hits with my diners. I've learned a lot about common Indian kitchen ingredients and have begun to better understand the roles that all those exotic spices play in a dish. But up until recently, I had never strayed from the book... if I wanted to taste the glory of tamarind chicken, I would just follow the tried and true recipe.

Following recipes in a cookbook nowadays though seems a lot more difficult... especially when I'm working with toddler/baby barely at bay and whatever is in the fridge. So recently, I've been finding myself winging it more and more often.


Quick Saag Paneer (makes enough for dinner for four, or dinner for two+kiddies and leftovers)

A dish usually made from pureed spinach and paneer (Indian yogurt cheese). In my version, I've had to eliminate any heat (for my picky three year old) and I use a combination of spinach and chard, which gives the final dish a little more body than the usual over-pureed spinach dish that you sometimes find at Indian take out places.
(p.s. If anyone is actually reading this and wants me to post this in proper recipe format, just let me know!)

Very coarsely minced garlic and ginger. Don't worry, everything is getting pureed.

Mince a 1-inch long piece of ginger and a slightly larger amount of garlic (today this was about 4 large cloves of garlic). I like my saag a little more garlicky than gingery... so I usually have about a 60/40 split between my garlic and ginger.

Remove the ribs and coarsely chop up 1 bunch of chard. I like to cut the ribs out by folding the leaves in half lengthwise, like a book, and cutting the "spine" off the chard.

You will also need to prepare about 10 ounces of spinach the same way. If you're like me and buy these ubiquitous boxes of organic baby spinach then you won't need to chop at all.

Cut a block of paneer* into small cubes. Smaller cubes are nice so that everyone gets some cheese in every bite, but not too small or else you'll lose the pleasure of biting into a soft, toothy morsel of cheese. Dredge them very lightly in flour (to keep it from sticking to the pan during the frying).

Get your other spices ready. 
  • minced ginger and garlic
  • 1/2 - 1 teaspoonful garam masala**, 1/2 teaspoonful cinnamon, 1 teaspoonful ground cumin
  • 2 teaspoonfuls ground coriander

Heat up some peanut or safflower oil and give the paneer a nice fry until they are warmed and golden. Take the paneer out of the pan and set aside.

Drizzle a little more oil in and fry your dry spices a minute until they are fragrant. Next toss in your garlic, ginger and chard. Sprinkle on a bit of salt. Saute until the chard is beginning to soften, then add your spinach. If you've used a large pan you may be able to add all the spinach in at once. If not, then just add it in little by little as it wilts. Sprinkle on a little more salt. Just a touch though, spinach tends to get salty very quickly. Once the greens are all in you can add a little water or stock if it's getting dry and cover the pan. Cook for a few more minutes until the spinach is nice and soft and the flavours are starting to permeate everywhere!

Pour the whole panful into a food processor and pulse away. (Don't put the pan in the sink yet!) You may not want to add all the liquid from the pan at the start - the last thing you want is Indian spinach soup. You can always add the liquid back in later to get the saag to the perfect dipping/scooping consistency. The nice thing about using chard and spinach together is that the spinach tends to puree into a fine paste while the chard maintains some form and texture.

You could also leave it in the pan and use a stick blender but it won't get a smooth and it gets really splatter-y :)

When your saag is looking just right, pour it back into the pan with the paneer, toss it lightly and warm it slightly to get all the greens and flavours to coat the cheese. You could also just the pureed spinach/chard and cheese together, but I find it's so much nicer to warm the cheese up again and get it nice and creamy.

And voila! Impress your diners with this and some store bought chapatis or naan. Or simply spoon it over rice for a really greens-filled comfort bowl. Like many spice-laden dishes, this gets better the second day as the flavours meld and bloom even more... if it lasts that long :) Hope you enjoy!

Please excuse the bad photo. Our cheap point and shoot camera doesn't take good pics to begin with.  And trying to photog a dish that's billowing steam doesn't help.

*I've found paneer in the cheese section of the some grocery stores (sold in three to four ounce blocks) and also in the international canned food section of other stores. Fresh paneer can be frozen and thawed in the fridge really easily (which I discovered through necessity, since I stockpile paneer whenever I'm lucky enough to find it in my local supermarkets). You could also make it at home - lots of recipes to be found on the net, like this one here. I've done it before and the taste is unrivalled, but I find I don't have the time when I'm looking for a quick curry fix. You could also probably substitute any other cheese/firm tofu that would keep its shape during frying.

**I used a garam masala recipe from my beloved 1000 Indian Recipes book, but you could easily buy garam masala from many grocery stores in the spice or international food section. Not sure what garam masala is? Here's a quick look. The measurements given are purely to my taste, definitely feel free to add more or less of whatever you like. Take a whiff of the spices and you'll have a pretty good idea of what kind of taste they impart. I freshly grind my spices before use as well, so you may need more or less depending on the freshness of your spices and the fineness of the grind.

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