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)
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 jalapeño 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 |
|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!|
|Birdy's full bowl. . .|
|and empty bowl. I'm not kidding about how good this is.|