(Sorry that there’s no picture. I’m getting really discouraged by my inability to photograph food. Here is an approximation of what the saag paneer will look like.)
Oh, man, this is good. When I lived in London for a month, I took an Indian “cookery” class. The instructor emailed me a list of dishes, from which I had to choose three. I chose saag paneer because my favorite thing at Indian restaurants is “chicken saag” (that’s what I always called it, anyway), and because I didn’t see chicken saag on the list, I assumed that saag paneer would be the closest thing to it. See, I didn’t know what paneer was.
Paneer, in the unlikely event that I was not the last person to figure this out, is described at Indian restaurants in New York as solid cottage cheese. I think it’s more akin to a firm mozzarella, one that doesn’t melt—it keeps its shape when cooked. It’s mild, pretty flavorless actually, and kind of dry, but it has the intoxicating texture and structure of cheese, and do I ever love cheese. I’ve always had to head to the Indian grocery district to buy it (in NY, this is around 28th street and Lexington in Manhattan), which is one of my favorite field trips.
This should be served with some fragrant rice and/or flatbreads and, if you’re game for making a day of it, it’s a nice thing to accompany other Indian dishes. But also, this is just comfort food. Think, mac and cheese-type comfort, except with complex flavors and abundant Popeye greens.
If you omit the paneer, this is a base for many other good dishes. I added chickpeas to it last night to nice results. You could also probably use lentils and potatoes. It would also be a good braising medium for chicken that has marinated overnight in yogurt, some green chilies-ginger-garlic paste, turmeric, cumin, and salt (ie, "chicken saag"). You might also make it work with firm tofu.
And here’s the recipe I’ve arrived at after tinkering with the one from the class. It’s a little bit of work, but so worth it.
3 T canola oil
18 oz paneer, cubed or sliced however you’d like
2 Indian green chilies, seeds in or out, depending on you personal heat threshold, chopped coarsely (buy them at the Indian grocer; I can’t find them anywhere else; this is what they look like)
2 cloves garlic, chopped coarsely
1 medium onion, chopped coarsely
1 t cumin seeds
1 bay leaf
1 big bag spinach
1/3 cup heavy cream
1/3 cup plain yogurt (low- or nonfat is fine)
1 t salt
squeeze lemon juice
1 t garam marsala
cilantro for garnish
In a large, deep frying pan, heat the oil. Over medium-high heat, fry the paneer in batches until browed evenly on all sides.
In a blender or food processor, blitz the green chilies, garlic, and onion; add water by the tablespoon if it doesn’t want to emulsify. Into the frying pan where the paneer was, with the heat on medium, add the cumin seeds and bay leaf, cooking for about 10 seconds until fragrant. Add the onion mixture and fry for 5 to 10 minutes, until it reduces and shows signs of browning. You’ll want to stir constantly in order to avoid sticking. Then add the spinach, turning with tongs, cooking until completely wilted. Tip this mixture into the food processor and puree.
Put the spinach mixture back into the pan and turn the heat down to medium-low. Stir in the cream and yogurt, and then the salt, sugar, lemon juice, and garam marsala. Adjust seasonings. Add the paneer and cook until heated through.
Garnish with cilantro and serve hot, with rice and/or flatbreads.