Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Eat Your Greens: Saag Paneer

My absolute favorite Indian dish is saag paneer (or gosht). But one thing I’ve come to learn is the wonderful creaminess I get at the Indian restaurant is actually harder to replicate at home than I thought. Maybe it’s just me??

This time around, I used lamb because I didn't have any paneer. If you want to use lamb, I recommend braising it separately then adding it back into the saag.

When I encounter a difficult or involved recipe, I take it as a challenge. I usually look for ways to cut down on the prep time or slim it down. For this dish I didn't want to do either. I just wanted to get it right. It's taken a few times to get results I'm happy with. Here are some observations that someone out there might find useful.

1) There seems to be many versions; some have a long list of spices while the simplest I’ve run across just has chilies, ginger and salt. I’ve come to realize that it’s not so much the list of spices as it is an adequate dose of salt. With that said, I do like adding “sweet” spices like cinnamon and cloves because they add a little complexity to the dish.

2) The only way to achieve that smooth, creamy texture is to process the saag, even if you started with chopped greens. I find using ghee gives the best flavor and texture, but I also like mustard oil. Cream also works. If using ghee, use it at the beginning in place of oil while the cream would be added during cooking. Yogurt just seems to curdle, so I avoid it.

3) This dish is best made a day or two in advance. Like a good stew or chili, I find the flavors are enhanced when they are allowed to sit and meld. In fact, it tastes even better after it’s been frozen and reheated! So if you end up making more than you can eat, freeze some and you’ll see.

4) The flavor is better if you use a combination of spinach and mustard greens or kale. I don’t recommend collard greens; I think they give the dish a funky taste.

Saag Paneer
Serves 6
  • 4 tbs ghee or 2 tbs mustard oil + 2 tbs vegetable oil (optional)
  • green chilies (use as many or as little as you want), split lengthwise (remove seeds for less heat)
  • 1 onion, grated or finely chopped
  • 1 tsp fenugreek seeds
  • 2 x 3-inch stick cinnamon
  • 5 cardamom pods
  • 5 whole cloves
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 ½ tbs grated ginger
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp ground coriander
  • 1 tbs tomato paste
  • 2 frozen packages chopped spinach, thawed and liquid squeezed out
  • 1 bunch kale or mustard greens, de-stalked and chopped
  • 1/3 cup heavy cream (optional)
  • 1 portion paneer, cubed (either homemade or store-bought is fine)
  • salt to taste
In a Dutch oven (or the like), ghee (or just regular old vegetable oil) over medium heat. When hot add the chilies, onion, fenugreek, cinnamon, cardamom and cloves. Sautee until the onion begins to brown slightly. Adjust the heat if necessary to prevent burning. Add the garlic and ginger and continue to cook for about 1 minute. There should be a nice fragrance coming from the pot. Add the dry spices and mix to thoroughly combine. Add the tomato paste and greens. Mix well. Add about 1 to 2 cups water (the amount will depend on how big your pot is) to give about ½ inch of liquid above the greens. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat to allow the greens to simmer, partially covered, for about 30 to 45 minutes (longer is better). Stir it occasionally. When the water evaporates, add either the cream or a little more water. By the end of the cooking time, the greens should be tender and most of the liquid should be evaporated. Turn off the heat, cover the pot and allow it to sit for about 15 minutes (or for a day or two). Now is the time I would add salt. I find it's hard to gauge the spice and salt level when foods are piping hot. Start with a half teaspoon then add more according to your preference.

Whether you let it sit for 15 minutes or overnight, I recommend processing the saag in a food processor or with a stick blender to get the “perfect” consistency. This is optional. Just be sure to remove the cinnamon stick and cardamom pods (if you can find them) before blending! If you’re planning on freezing, now’s the time to put some aside.

Before serving, fry the paneer in a little bit of oil (or ghee) until browned on all sides. Drain on paper towels. Check the saag again to make sure it's the consistency you want. If you prefer, add a little more water to thin it out. Add the paneer to the saag and mix gently.

Serve with basmati rice or Indian bread of your choice.


Julie said...

This is my favorite Indian dish too, honestly! I usually prefer it with lamb or chicken, but the cheese is great too. I've never made it but it's one of those thing I want to try sometime. Very good tips!

Manggy said...

Huh, Blazinghotwok's RSS feed has not yet updated to include this, I came via Tastespotting. That's unusually delayed.

Anyway, in the past year of blogging I've just realized how little I know of my neighboring Asian cuisines (beyond the usual), it's sad... I had to look up paneer :)

food makes me happy said...

God I love it!

dp said...

manggy, I think Indian food is quite different from other Asian cuisines. One thing I found quite interesting is there are so many vegetarians, yet tofu is not staple of their diet. My coworker from Indian had never eaten tofu. But then again, I didn't even try Indian food until I was in my late teens. I don't think my mom has ever had it!

Anonymous said...

I made this tonight & it is delicious! I used chicken broth instead of water, which added even more flavor. This was the perfect way to use a 1-lb container of organic baby spinach from Costco. Making this at home was even better than eating out, where it can be pretty bland. Thanks for the great recipe.

Dee said...

anon, this is probably one of the hardest dishes for me to get right, but once it happens, it's so good. I'm glad my tips were helpful.

Anonymous said...

Made this for dinner tonight and it came out great. I had somewhat different vegetables on hand (orach and tatsoi, both somewhat like spinach in flavor), but it still worked fine. Thanks for posting the recipe!

Dee said...

Ingo, I'm glad you found the post helpful. I haven't had this in a while...think I'll have to make this soon. And all the ingredients happen to be in season!

Anonymous said...

The wife and I love a good Saag and will be giving your recipe a whirl over the weekend. I was curious though, I'd like to use fresh spinach and capture all the goodness. Do you have any recomendations on converting from frozen to fresh spinach?


Dee said...

Hi Don, I do this with fresh spinach too. You'll need a lot of it, maybe 3 bunches, then a large bunch or so of the mustard or kale. I occasionally buy the supersized bag of fresh baby spinach from Costco and guesstimate how much I should use. The fresh spinach also releases a lot of liquid, so you probably won't need to add much liquid, if any at all. Since you are familiar with the texture and flavor you're looking for, you'll be able to make the adjustments as you go along. Good luck! Would love to hear how it goes.

JJ said...

I cook Indian all the time and that is hands down one of the BEST recipes I have ever found. It tasted almost exactly like what I would get out. Used fresh spinach. Wonderful.

Dee said...

JJ, thanks for stopping by and giving your feedback. It's nice to know the tips were useful. Another commenter suggesting switching the ratios, using more mustard greens, and I think it does give it a nice kick.

Anonymous said...

I'm going to try this with spinach and the wild garlic mustard that is proliferative in my yard. Looks like a good recipe. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

The saag paneer made with 50/50 garlic mustard greens and spinach was fantastic!!

(I'm on Mozilla and having trouble setting up any kind of communication, so for now I'm anon)

Dee said...

Debbie, great! I'm digging that everyone uses fresh greens. Don't think I ever had wild garlic mustard greens. Need to look that up...

erica said...

Just made this last night for an Indian-themed dinner party. It came out creamy and an Indian guest could not get enough it! I must have simmered the greens for a couple hours, then blended with an immersion stick blender and omitted the cream. Definitely use ghee rather than oil! Thanks for the great recipe.

SusanB said...

Loved this saag paneer recipe. Couldn't do it exactly as written but was just fine with a few minor alterations. I'm thinking that I'll use chicken stock next time instead of water. Also, I made it with chicken instead of paneer. Seasoned the chicken with a few seasonings that I use for another recipe. Can't wait to make it again.