Summer blend: Mix up some spinach, spices for palak paneer
I have been celebrating the arrival of spring with helpings of palak paneer, an Indian dish of spinach and homemade cheese. The spinach, pureed, has a thrilling flavor thanks to ginger and serrano peppers and Indian spices. This green sauce envelopes the sweet, nutty cheese, creating a contrast that’s almost as lovely as it is delicious.
Palak paneer is often mistaken for saag paneer, a popular Indian restaurant dish. The difference is that saag paneer can contain greens including mustard, radish and turnip in addition to spinach, while palak paneer contains only spinach.
It is a dish you might find anywhere in India, which means there are variations. I can’t say I’ve tried them all, but I would if I could. Of those I have tried, my favorite comes from the blog Feasting at Home. It uses cashews, which add a subtle but rich creaminess, and calls for frozen spinach — but notes you can also use fresh.
Freezing cooks the spinach in a way, so all you have to do is thaw it in the sauteed flavorings, and then we don’t have to wait for it to cool before it goes into the blender.
If your spinach is limited, save the fresh spinach for raw use, and make palak paneer with frozen. But if you have more spinach than you can handle from your garden or CSA, use it. While you’re at it, make a big batch of palak and freeze the leftovers, with or without cheese, for later.
The paneer, aka Indian cheese, is delicious and surprisingly easy to make. You get a grapefruit-sized ball of paneer from a gallon of milk, you press the ball into a disc and then cut into cubes, which some cooks fry in ghee (clarified butter) before adding to the palak.
Unfried paneer is cloudlike, softer and decidedly creamier than fried, and blends blissfully with the creamy spinach sauce unhindered by hard boundaries. The fried cheese, meanwhile, is stiffer, nuttier, sweeter and of course crunchier, like a dense, chewy mascarpone with an exoskeleton.
I’ve modified the Feasting at Home recipe, as surely the blog’s author Sylvia Fountaine did from wherever she got it. Compliments to whomever added the cashews.
This flavor-packed dish needs no condiment or garnish, and is lovely atop jasmine or basmati rice. For a vegan version, substitute tofu for the cheese and oil for the ghee.
For the paneer:
• 1 gallon milk
• 6 tablespoons vinegar
• 2 cups water
• ½ teaspoon salt
For the palak:
• 5 tablespoons ghee
• 1 onion, minced
• 2 garlic cloves, chopped
• 2 tablespoons chopped ginger root
• 2 serrano peppers, chopped
• 1 teaspoons mustard seed
• 2 teaspoons cumin
• 2 teaspoons coriander
• 2 teaspoons garam masala
• 1 pound spinach, fresh or frozen
• ¾ cup yogurt
• ½ cup cashews
Pour the milk into a thick-bottomed pot. Heat on medium, frequently scrubbing the bottom with a rubber spatula to prevent buildup, until foaming and about to boil — about 20 minutes. Turn off heat and allow to sit for 10 minutes. Measure out the vinegar and mix with the water.
Add the salt and vinegar water, a splash at a time in as dispersed a manner as possible, stirring the pot in a slow circle. It should take about 2 minutes to sprinkle in all of the vinegar.
Let it cool to room temperature. It will separate.
While it’s cooling, lay out a double layer of cheesecloth over a colander, and set it over a pot or bowl to catch the whey for ricotta cheese, homemade protein powder or whatever.
Carefully pour the curds through the cheesecloth, pull the corners together and use them to tie up the hunk of cheese so it can drain for an hour. Then untie it and press it between two plates with a weight on top, draining the water that squeezes out.
While the cheese presses, toast the mustard, cumin and coriander seeds on medium heat for 4 minutes. Add 3 tablespoons of ghee and the garam masala, onion, garlic, ginger and serranos. When the onions are translucent, about 12 minutes, add the spinach and a cup of water.
While frozen spinach simply will thaw in the hot pan, fresh spinach should cook down — about 5 minutes.
Add the cashews, yogurt and spinach mixture to a blender and blend.
Cut the disc of cheese into cubes, and fry them in a tablespoon or two of ghee until they are brown on all sides. At serving time, heat the palak in a pan, diluting with water if it’s too thick. Add the cheese cubes and let them heat up with the spinach mixture.