Monday, May 09, 2011

Sort of Saag Paneer

Thank god for our friend Jagu, and his sometimes feeding of us (oh, Jagu's lentil fritters!), because we do not eat Indian food out very often, which is sad, because I love to eat out, and I love Indian food. In fact, when I say to Michael, and I say this often, "If we had a lot of money, I'd want to live exactly the same way we live now, just without worrying all the time," he always says, "Well, not worrying, and also eating out every night." Which is so true. I love to cook, but eating out might be my very favorite thing to do that you have to pay for.

And when we do go out for Indian food, I like to establish immediately how we're going to order: Are we sharing everything? How many entrees are we getting? Who doesn't like what? That kind of thing--so that I can figure out about the saag paneer. Not whether or not we're going to order it, because we are going to order it, but how much of it I'm going to get to eat. (Don't you wish you were going out to eat with me?)

Saag paneer is a puree of spinach or other greens, with cubes of delicious, creamy, fresh white cheese nestled in it. (Ew. I've just become like one of those restaurant reviewers I hate who use the word "nestled.") I realize that if I were selling it that way door to door, you'd slam yours in my face, but really: it's crazy good. I like it even when it's kind of bad, with grease pooled visibly on its surface and the spinach tasting not unpleasantly like it came out of a can, or even the kind that comes in a plasticky metallic envelope from Trader Joe's. But when it's good, it is ethereally good: outrageously rich, subtly spiced, emerald green, and deeply satisfying. Which this recipe is. It's based on one from Deborah Madison's This Can't Be Tofu! cookbook, which is not exactly my kind of cookbook, given that of course this can be tofu, silly, but still. The idea here is that you substitute tofu for the paneer, and I don't know why it works so well, but it does. Which is a great thing, given that Anni, bless her, tried to make paneer twice, and one time the paneer ended up in two-inch layer of blackness on the bottom of the Dutch oven, and another time the paneer turned out, mysteriously, to be wadded up in the elbow of the kitchen drainpipe, which we'd unscrewed because the sink had stopped draining.

Still, even with the easy tofu substitution, I need to confess to you that this is a somewhat involved recipe--not difficult, just, kind of, multi-faceted and pot-dirtying. I wouldn't feel the need to apologize if what you ended up with was a tray full of baby-back ribs (This Can't Be Ribs!), but given that the final dish is green and tofu-studded, well--you're going to have to decide for yourself. It's a no-brainer for me because everyone around here completely loves it, and so I am rewarded for my efforts by clean plates and lip-smacking. If you are more likely to be rewarded by "What's that funny smell?" and people pushing things around with forks and grimaces, then think twice.

Saag Paneer (more or less)
Serves 4-6
Total time: 45 minutes

A couple of things. One is that I've made this with both fresh and frozen spinach, and it is so much better with fresh, that I wouldn't even mention frozen, except that sometimes I really do happen to have spinach in the freezer and a carton of tofu in the fridge, and so voila, dinner. The frozen spinach doesn't lend the final dish the same brilliant shade of green and silky texture--picture something darker and stringier--but it does make a perfectly fine meal. Also, the spices: I've upped the spices here, adding both curry powder and garam masala, which is a spice mix you can find in the bulk spice section of any natural foods store. Substitute as you like or need to. Finally, that yogurt sauce is my concession to keeping the dish milder for the children; it adds a little tangy heat, which we love. Ironically, the kids now end up adding it to theirs too.

1 carton firm or soft tofu (I've used and liked both; I'm using firm tofu here)
Kosher salt (or half as much table salt for any given amount)
1 large bunch spinach, well washed (or, less ideally, 1 bag frozen spinach, thawed)
1/2 jalapeƱo chile, seeded and coarsely chopped (or more or less or omit altogether)
1-inch knob ginger, peeled and coarsely chopped
3 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
1 cup diced onion
2 tablespoons butter
1 1/2  teaspoons ground cumin
½ tsp curry powder
1 teaspoon garam masala
1/8 teaspoon each nutmeg and cayenne
½-1 cup half-and-half
1/3 cup yogurt (I like Greek yogurt for this, and everything else, really)

For topping: ½ cup yogurt whirred in a food processor with 1 tablespoon of jalapenos, ½ teaspoon kosher salt, and, if you have them, some fresh mint leaves.

Dice the tofu into half-inch cubes. Bring 6 cups water to a boil, add 2 teaspoons salt and lower the heat to a simmer. Add the tofu, turn off the heat, and leave it for 5 minutes. Pour it into a colander to drain. (If you've used soft tofu, remove it with a slotted spoon so it doesn't break apart.) Set it aside.

Steam the spinach until wilted (I do this in the same pot I cooked the tofu in), then remove it to a cutting board and chop. When cool enough to handle, squeeze out the excess water.

Put the chiles, ginger, garlic, and onion in a food processor, and process until finely chopped. Heat the butter in a nonstick skillet, add the onion mixture, and cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, for 5 minutes.

Now add 1 teaspoon of salt, all the spices, and 1 cup of water. Simmer for 5 minutes, then return the mixture to the food processor (don't bother washing it in between stages), add the spinach, and puree until smooth.

Return the mixture to the skillet, add the half-and-half and the tofu, and simmer for about 5 minutes (start with the smaller amount of half and half, then add more until it seems adequately rich and creamy). Turn off the heat and stir in the yogurt. Taste for salt and re-season, then serve over rice with the yogurt topping.

I Can't Believe It's Not Pork Ribs Tofu! Oh, wait, yes I can.

You know about spinach, right? How you start with a bag that needs to be strapped to your roof with bungee cords.

And there's so, so much spinach, it has to be crammed into a ginormous pot.

And steamed, after which

you will wonder where it all went.

Onions, garlic, ginger, jalapeno.

They get whirled up in here.

And fried up in here. Yum. The cooking jalapeno burned my eyes in a good way, since it took my mind off of my eye-burning allergies. Kind of like digging a fingernail X into your mosquito bites.


The simmered, spiced aromatics get their turn, along with the spinach.

And then it's back to the pan with you!

I was telling Ben about the recent gender hullabaloo--those photos of the J. Crew designer's son painting his fingernails. Ben can be beautifully outraged about stereotypes like nobody else--what with his gentle convictions and compassionate wisdom--and I was looking forward to his reaction. But this time? You could just see the apolitical light-bulb over his head, you could hear the waah-waah-waah he was hearing--the sound of me still talking--and he waited patiently for me to finish before saying, "People. Sheesh. Anyway, can I get out the fingernail polish?"

Birdy's full bowl. . .

and empty bowl. I'm not kidding about how good this is.


  1. Alas, tofu and Indian food are two things I greatly despise, so I'm going to pass on this recipe. I'm commenting to say two tangentially related things:

    First, I'm completely with you on the money thing, how I'd live just as I do now but without the stress-induced nausea at bill-paying time. I tell my husband that my idea of a life of luxury is always having, say, $50 cash in my wallet that I could freely spend on whatever floats my boat. Pizza for dinner? Let's go! An adorable necklace and earring set from Ten Thousand Villages? Why yes, I think I will! A few new plants from the church garden sale? Sign me up!

    I also wanted to share something I wrote about the pink nail polish kerfuffle. I thought about your Ben when I wrote it, along with my Ben, who is similarly inclined. I'm not sharing this purely for transparent self-promotion reasons, but because I wrote it for a conservative evangelical Christian audience. (I am Christian and somewhat evangelical but liberal, which can be both really fun and kind of tricky.) And by and large, the conservative, right-leaning audience said, "Amen sister!" to my defense of little boys in pink nail polish. So I offer it in a mutual understanding spirit, surmising that your blog probably attracts a more left-leaning crowd. It's my little contribution to gender-role busting and world peace, or at least less misunderstanding and meanness between left and right.

    Link is here:

  2. one_more_amy11:50 AM

    That looks so delicious, but I'm afraid my family is more on the "what's that funny smell?" side of things. I could make it anyway, which I often do with these types of recipes, and when they refuse it I clean everyone's plate for them. Classy.

  3. Cheese? Is there cheese? Or is the tofu standing in for the cheese? I was intrigued by your mention of cheese :-)

    Ellen - the link you posted isn't working, but found your article and loved it! Like that blog too.

  4. I would love this, as I haven't meet an Indian food that I didn't like. My kids have hardly met a vegetable that they DO like, and let's not get started on "spicy." You'd think what I ate when they were in the womb and breastfeeding would have done a better job of preparing them for this stuff!

    But really, I'm here to say thanks for the recipe and the opening of the nail polish discussion. I'm about to go read Ellen's post, and maybe some day I'll tell my own 3-year-old boy who currently has magenta toe nails about it.

    Also, my word verification is fockhan, which I think I'll try to substitute for some of the f-bombs I routinely drop, since said 3-year-old repeated it the other day.

  5. And I'm back to thank Ellen for letting us know about her post, which is interesting, thoughtful, and so well-written. I recommend it!

  6. Ellen, that was great. My favorite line: "If what we did on a relaxed Saturday at 5 years old determined our future lifestyle, we’d all be dropping our babies in the sandbox because our neighbor friend just showed up with Popsicles. "

    Thank you for sharing.


  7. Thanks all. I'm glad you liked it. Always feel a little weird about posting something like that in case people are like, "Um, yeah, what does that have to do with saag paneer?" But Catherine and her Ben have been role models of sort for me and my gender role busting Ben. So wanted to share it.

    And sorry the link doesn't work. Have never figured out how to post a working link on a Blogger comment. But thanks to those who figured out how to find the post anyway!

  8. Catherine, this looks fabulous. We're dairy free so I'd need to sub out the dairy, but that's no big deal. I love the before and after picture of Birdy's bowl. True testament to how good it was.

    The whole fingernail polish "issue" is so silly. Good for Ben for having fun and doing what makes him happy!

  9. Anonymous1:09 PM

    While my fam would likely scrunch up their noses at this one, I always read your entries through entirely because I love your writing so much. My Monday wouldn't be complete without you, Catherine!

    Ellen, what a great line: "God created us as sexual beings, but he also gives us children who are refreshingly free of the need to categorize and sexualize other people." Children are beautiful, aren't they?

  10. Hm. I lurve saag paneer. My kids hate indian food, spicy things, and vegetables that are leaves (I swear they like tons of other things!) Maybe I will half the recipe and just make it for us grown ups? And use the rest of the tofu to make your soy-glazed tofu that has become such a staple at our house....

  11. I am DYING to try this! Saag Panner is my favorite to order at the local Indian place. Thanks for doing all the hard work, now I just have to whip it up!

  12. i totaly, toally thought of you and ben when i heard about the J Crew fingernail thing, and am so glad to see you write about it here! I wondered what you guys thought. No, i knew what you thought, but still like reading about it!

  13. I'm not a big tofu fan, but I'm willing to give this a try since I LOVE spinach and Indian food. I'm glad someone else has my same incongruity: I both love and hate to cook. I love to cook and try new recipes. At the same time, I love to eat out so much!

  14. I am the exact same way about saag (I don't even care whether it's got the paneer) when we eat at restaurants. It must be ordered. I would be happy eating saag and rice for breakfast every day.

    I'm so excited to try this recipe! Last week my husband finally made a batch that was excellent, but I'm not sure he wrote down what he did.

  15. Anonymous9:16 PM

    Love the recipe but loved more being reminded of the fingernail x in the mosquito bite.

  16. We made this for dinner tonight (minus the jalapeno) and it was super yummy! Thanks for a winner.

  17. We are very laid back about finger nail polish in our house. However, when we went to get pictures taken at the fancy picture place, I neglected to think of all my distant relatives who *are not* laid back about finger nail polish. Needless to say, after widely disseminating said photos, we had a few calls that reminded me of a scene from "The Blind Side" when some uncle or other calls and says "Did you know there's a black man in your family picture?" only insert various callous comments about boys in pink nail polish. After all the fallout, we are still laid back about nail polish.

  18. dale in denver6:11 PM

    J - that's funny. Reminds me of a family photo shoot when my then 5 year old had press on tattoos on his hand. I didn't even notice it the day of the photo shoot. But I sure did miss it when they airbrushed it out for the final print (along with most of grandma's wrinkles). WTF? Airbrushing out a press on tattoo? Isn't that one of the things that helps us to remember our kids how they are, and not some ethereal airbrushed false memory? It made me sad. Grandma, however, was quite pleased with the end product.

  19. Erin K.7:51 PM

    When you come to Los Angeles, you can come with me to my favorite dive Indian place for chai and the most amazingly super-spicey paneer with peppers and mushrooms that tastes like it has been cooking for at least a month but the best possible way. Man...I am so going to try this recipe asap - because I just may have everything in the fridge...I can't imagine tofu being as good as the actual paneer...but I'm going to try anyway!

  20. I'm really torn about this recipe. I absolutely love saag paneer. This recipe does indeed sound involved. Just with all the multiple pots and food processors and all. But I may have to try it because it definitely sounds better for my arteries and pocketbook than the real deal.
    I don't care about nail polish on boys or girls. My own 3 year old son's favorite color is pink, and today he told me he wishes he could have beautiful earrings like mine. So what? I know he already gets enough gender stereotyping at daycare because he's often commented that this thing or another is for boys and not girls. Poor thing thinks girls don't eat meat because I don't, but he and daddy do. Now he happily proclaims that all girls can eat meat except me. But I don't think he believes it!
    Thanks for making my Monday.

  21. Anonymous6:47 PM

    I have to say that this recipe is fantastic. I love a lot of the recipes you've posted over the years, and this one is one of the best. Of course, I live in a small New England town with not much ethnic food and I adore Indian, so it could be desperation, but this one is a keeper.

    Thanks, Catherine!

  22. Tabatha9:13 PM

    The recipe looks great!

    One kind of funny thing about the nail polish is that I have encouraged my daughters to only put in on their toenails (unless they are using clear polish) because I feel like it is more practical that way -- if you put it on your fingernails, you will have to spend more time worrying about fixing it, it getting messed up, etc. It seems like it supports sexist stereotypes for women/girls to be all "I can't! It will mess up my nails!" So I guess I am on the flip side of the sexism and nails debate.

  23. Yes! Indian food is like a dear college friend--that whole I love you so much, why do we see each other so rarely? thing. And this -- so doable! So delicious! I accidentally made it completely vegan because I had Earth Balance and almond milk in the fridge instead of butter and half&half. And still completely excellent. How to thank you enough?

  24. dale in denver2:32 PM

    Wow. So incredibly delish! And really not so "fussy" - I evaluate the fussy factory by how many dishes I have to clean. Back and forth between pot and food processor is no big deal as long as I'm not doing a bunch of cleaning in between, which I didn't. Total clean up was:
    easy clean of pot used for tofu/spinach, pan that it all cooked in, food processor, and pressure cooker for rice. (plus knives, spoons, spatulas) Really, about the same as an average meal.

    For my kiddos, I left jalapeno out of Saag and made a mild version of the topping. But, I think it was just too flavorfull. I'm going to have to up my seasonings when I cook so that their tastebuds grow accustomed to all that flavor. Still, for the two who ate it (the third slept through dinner and the night, poor little lamb), I bribed them with dessert if they finished their bowls with no complaints. They did finish and they didn't complain. Which tells me they didn't HATE it. Another time or two in a month or two and they could be lovers of this dish.

    I got the leftovers for lunch today. Again, WOW!

  25. Oh, Catherine. It's like you're a mind reader. My husband and I are completely crazy about saag paneer and we actually had the Trader Joe kind out of the packet for dinner last night! Sadly there are no Trader Joes here, but whenever we visit my mom, we load up on about 10 packets of Indian curry things, with at least half of those saag paneer. I've never actually had it from a restaurant, only from the packet and homemade. Oh and every time I have made it myself, I use tofu instead of paneer, just like you. The texture and overall flavor when all is said and done is pretty similar and no way in heck can I find paneer in the middle of Alaska. I already have a saag paneer recipe that we really like, but would love to try your recipe, too! Yum!