Though now my favorite cuisine, it took a special dish for Indian food to grow on me. Remembering the heavily salted, bland curries from a local Indian food buffet near my university, I was less than enthused about the Indian restaurant that my now-husband had chosen for date night. As I sat reading the menu, a description caught my eye: “spinach cooked with cubes of Indian cheese.” Believing cheese to make everything better, I ordered palak paneer (palak meaning “spinach”) and gave it a try. The dish was delicious, and it indeed changed my view of Indian food forever. (A year later, my first encounter with paneer tikka masala would result in me visiting the nearest Indian foods store after leaving the restaurant, buying the ingredients, and making the delightful dish at home.)
Though saag paneer is often described as “spinach and Indian cheese” too, saag actually just means “greens.” In other words, spinach can be present in the curry or not at all. If living in Korea and receiving the WWOOF CSA basket, the spinach, the mallow, the thick leaves from the winter cabbage, and even the darker, thicker lettuce leaves from this week’s yield can all be used in combination to make the saag paneer below. (A bit partial to spinach, I usually use more of it in curries than any other green.) A few leaves of kale thrown in the mix would make for a lovely dish, too.
1 round of paneer, cubed
3-4 bundles of spinach alone or in combination with mallow, kale, or other dark, leafy greens
1 tablespoon oil or ghee
1/2 onion, finely diced
3-4 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon grated ginger
1/2 teaspoon whole cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon garam masala
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
1/4 teaspoon cayenne (optional)
1/2-3/4 cup water
Pinch of salt
Cracked black pepper
First, make the paneer.
While the cheese is setting, wash the greens well in cold water and remove the stems by folding the leaves in half (the underside visible) and pulling the stems like a zipper. Chop the leaves finely and set them aside.
Heat the ghee or oil in a frying pan over medium heat. Add the cumin seeds and cook (stirring frequently) for 30 seconds, or until fragrant. Add the onion and garlic and cook for one minute, or until the onion becomes translucent.
Next add the chopped greens, grated ginger, garam masala, turmeric, and cayenne (if using) and cook, stirring continuously, for two minutes.
Gently stir in the paneer and water and cook for 3-5 minutes, until the water is nearly gone and the cheese is very tender.
Season with salt and cracked pepper and serve immediately with rice, naan, or (as pictured) chapatis.