Many years ago, I had the great good fortune to be traveling in India over Christmas and New Year’s. I didn’t know as much about Indian cuisine as I do now. To play it safe, and avoid Deli belly, I kept my food choices relatively simple. One of the dishes I ordered every day was Saag Paneer. Saag refers to a leaf based dish (usually spinach) and Paneer is a fresh unsalted, uncultured white cheese. The cheese is relatively bland, somewhat crumbly and doesn’t melt.
What amazed me was that everywhere I ordered this dish, it was always different. In some versions, the spinach had been blended to a velvety smoothness. In others, the spinach was coarsely chopped and mixed with the sauteed onions. Still, others added milk or heavy cream to create a dish that resembled a traditional American creamed spinach. Even the spices differed from dish to dish. But they were all delicious.
In my own neck of the woods, Beverly Hills, I am lucky to have three good Indian restaurants less that 5 minutes from home. (Two offer delivery.) Despite the fact that my palate is much more sophisticated, I still find myself ordering Saag Paneer. And guess what? Each restaurant makes it slightly differently, and once again they are all delicious.
The version I made for New Year’s Day is less creamy than some because I don’t puree the spinach and I don’t add heavy cream or milk. This is my favorite version, for now.
The recipe calls for Paneer which is a curdled fresh cheese. It’s easy to make (and I will post the recipe), but you can also buy it readymade at Indian or ethnic markets. It’s better if you make it from scratch, but I confess for New Year’s Day, I bought it. There were too many other things to do.
It’s a fantastic side dish for brunch or even dinner. If you have friends who say, “I don’t like Indian food, I don’t like curry,” don’t tell them this is an Indian dish. Just tell them, “It’s spinach and cheese.” Let them taste it and when they go back for seconds, resist the temptation to tell them they’re eating Indian food.
EVENT: New Year’s Day Brunch
SERVES: 6-8 People
8-10 cups fresh spinach, chopped
2 tablespoons grapeseed oil or other neutral oil
1 large onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, mashed
1 tablespoon chopped fresh ginger
1 tablespoon Garam Masala
1 teaspoon fenugreek leaves
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 cup cubed paneer
2 tablespoons water
1. Warm 1 tablespoon oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. Add the chopped onion, chopped ginger and garlic. Cook for approximately 4 minutes until onions are soft and slightly translucent.
2. Add the Garam Masala, fenugreek leaves, salt and cayenne pepper.
3. Mix well and saute for approximately 2-3 minutes. Add chopped spinach and mix well. Add water, cover and continue to cook over low heat until spinach cooked through.
4. In a separate skillet over medium high heat, warm 1 tablespoon of oil. Add cubed paneer and cook until golden, turning frequently.
5. Stir the paneer into the spinach mixture. Gently mix.
6. Taste and correct seasoning. Add salt and pepper if necessary.
7. Cook 2 more minutes. Serve.