How that package of paneer came to be in the health foods display at my local Loblaws, among the fruit smoothies, faux meat products and various consistencies of tofu is still beyond me, but there it was nonetheless. I figured that it was my responsibility to rescue it, before the tofus could realise an impersonator lurked among them.
So I took the paneer home, and did right by my new friend by cutting it into little cubes which I pan-fried into lovely golden-crusted perfection. Then, I introduced it to a few of my old friends – fresh spinach, onions, spices, yogurt and cream – to make the traditional Indian dish known as saag paneer (or palak paneer, as it seems to be called the other half of the time).
This recipe is an amalgam of a handful of different recipes collected from various sources, though it probably owes the most to Madhur Jaffrey’s, especially in terms of the cooking technique.
I’m sure all my meddling probably means it’s rather inauthentic, but it’s exactly the way I like my saag paneer – soft, thick and creamy, with a chunky sort of texture rather than the smooth spinach puree found in some interpretations. And no tomatoes, because while there are plenty of places that tomatoes belong, this isn’t one of them. It’s Indian comfort food at its best.
I’ll admit, it’s not exactly a low-fat meal, what with the cheese and the yogurt and the heavy cream… but then again, that’s exactly why it’s so damned delicious. Plus I can still feel virtuous because it’s much healthier than the drowning-in-ghee version at my favourite Indian buffet, especially when I serve it atop a bed of chewy, nutty brown rice. See? Perfectly justifiable.
Next on the docket: homemade paneer… because while I may not know what strange series of coincidences brought me and the paneer together that day, I know they’re not likely to happen again.
(on the other hand, there’s probably a very good chance that I’ll trip over a some lutefisk lurking among the frozen shrimp or some tamarind concentrate hiding next to the bottled lemon juice next time I venture into Loblaws… anyone got recipes?)
- 1 large onion, diced
- 1 red hot chili pepper, seeded and chopped
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 tsp grated fresh ginger
- 1 cup fresh paneer, cut into ½" cubes
- 1 tbsp canola oil
- ½ tsp garam masala
- ¼ tsp cumin seed
- 1 lb fresh spinach, finely chopped
- ½ cup plain full-fat Greek-style yogurt
- ½ tsp salt
- ¼ cup heavy cream
- 1 tsp lemon juice
- Use a food processor to pulse the onion, chili pepper, garlic and ginger into a smooth paste. Set aside.
- In a large, wide saucepan, fry the paneer in canola oil over medium-high heat until golden and browned on all sides. Remove from the pan and set aside.
- Scrape the onion puree into the pan, along with garam masala and cumin seed. Cook, stirring constantly, for about 5 minutes or until onion is browned and fragrant. Add spinach, yogurt and salt, and continue cooking for 1 minute or until the spinach begins to wilt. Reduce heat to low and cook, covered, for 15 minutes or until the mixture is very soft and thick.
- Return the paneer to the pan. Gently stir in the cream, then bring to a simmer before covering the pan once more. Continue cooking for another 10 minutes, stirring periodically, until the mixture is creamy and most of the liquid has been absorbed. Remove from heat and stir in lemon juice, then adjust seasoning with salt to taste.