Thursday, April 8, 2010

Saag Paneer, or, an introduction to the least intimidating Indian food ever

This photo ain't great, but it's the only saag picture I have.
I love saag paneer. Indian restaurants close their doors when they see me coming.  They know that if I get a table, it’s all over.  Their saag paneer container will empty in record time, with no consideration shown for fellow diners.  The Greeks could commiserate with the Indians as I am the same way over their fried/roasted cauliflower.  I try to vary my restaurant visits so as not to overwhelm any given restaurant with my gastronomic demands.
Naturally, I felt the need to conquer aspects of these cuisines in my own kitchen.  Roasting cauliflower: check.  Super easy.  Hardly even worth a blog entry, but I will do so just so you see the simplicity and gorgeousness of that humble, luscious dish.
But Indian food seems to really intimidate us whiteys.  With spices like asafoetida and black onion seed (which isn’t even related to onion), we get overwhelmed by the unknown.  And we just know that we are missing some great cultural culinary secret even when we have a recipe.  It seems saag paneer is the perfect food to use to dip my toe into the Indian food– it’s the food that white people who are more adventurous than other white people but are still white people make.  At least, that seems to be verified by the following conversation I just had with my roommate:
Me: “I made CHEESE while you were gone!”
Her: “My father made farmer’s cheese once.”
Me: “That’s what I made, too.”
Us: “It was for saag paneer.”
From the moment I stepped foot in the Indian grocers close to my office, I was drawn in.  The various smells and colors were remarkable.  My first visit was spent slowly going down the aisles, imagining I could pronounce things, wondering if the staff would be able to understand me if I tried to ask for the spice blend I was looking for.  I found amazing fruits and vegetables I don’t see anywhere else in Dallas.  And I found the courage to buy a jar of spice taste unknown.  That night I prepared an amazing lentil dish with said spice, and that courage blossomed into a demand for more experiences.
My next foray was the paneer, which I used in this dish.  I was too lazy to go get all the spices needed for some of the more complicated saag recipes, and this one did the trick and is approachable for the neophyte.  I will venture farther into the store and come out with a more traditional approach shortly.
From the blog CheapHealthyGood, a favorite of mine, with a few small adjustments.

  • 2 tsp canola oil
  • 1 bunch spinach
  • 5 oz paneer, cubed
  • 8 oz canned tomato sauce
  • 3 jalapeños, finely diced
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 1 T garlic-ginger-cilantro paste (or more to your taste)
  • 1/2 tsp coriander powder (or freshly ground coriander seeds)
  • 1/2 tsp cumin powder (or freshly ground cumin seeds)
  • 1 tsp salt
    1) In a large skillet, saute the jalapenos and spinach until the spinach wilts.
    2) Blend the spinach and chilies with a pinch of salt in a food processor, blender or food mill until smooth. Set aside.  I recommend a food mill if you have it or a food processor.  Getting the stringy bits of spinach out of the blender was… tedious and perhaps more work than the rest of the recipe combined.
    3) In the skillet, heat a teaspoon of oil over medium heat and sauté onions until translucent. Add the garlic-ginger-cilantro paste, cumin, and coriander, and continue to cook for 2 – 3 more minutes.
    4) Add the pureed spinach and tomato sauce to the onion mixture along with 1 tsp of salt. You may add a bit of water, if necessary, but it should not be runny or soupy. Simmer for 5–10 minutes.
    5) Add paneer cubes and simmer for 2–3 more minutes, stirring occasionally.


    1. I love good Indian food, but haven;t been brave enough to try it - thanks for this!

    2. Good luck! It's not a perfect substitute, but it is good in its own right, I think. I'll be sure to keep my promise to go find and make a more authentic recipe.

      Thanks for stopping by!

    3. I my roommate and I made cheese once too ... inadvertantly. It took us several weeks of searching the apartment to find the source of an elusive smell. Eventually we found a mug of milk that had been left on top of the refrigerator. When we inverted this in the sink a blob of what could only be described as cheese fell out. Yum.

    4. um... whew. I can smell that through time and space.


      I once left a pear in my backpack for a long time. When I finally noticed, it had sprouted many many tiny mushrooms but was otherwise still pearish. That backpack continues to serve me well to this day.