Saag Paneer (with modified Paneer)

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I couldn’t be bothered to get out boyfriend’s Fancy Camera, so for this post we have regressed to iPhone photos. My apologies.

I’m luckier than most: the first time I ever had Indian food, it was homemade by the family of one of my dad’s co-workers. My family was invited to their house for dinner, and I remember a veritable feast of dishes that didn’t look like any type of food I’d ever seen before–to be fair, I was like 8 years old at the time and my culinary experience to date included Chinese food (my mother’s cooking) and “American Food” AKA McDonald’s. That first sip of mango lassi is LIFE. CHANGING.

After that, my dad would occasionally take us to Indian lunch buffets, his go-to whenever my mother was gone. Indian food (especially Indian lunch buffets) always occupied this magical space in my little kid mind: I had absolutely no idea what any of the food was made of, but I didn’t really care because it tasted fantastic.

However, I’ve never attempted to actually cook Indian food until this year. There still remained this aura of mystery and magic around it that made me apprehensive because I was convinced it was complicated, hard, time-consuming, and I knew my meager cooking skills wouldn’t be able to handle it. Throughout college I became more and more confident in the kitchen (especially when I moved out of housing/meal plans and into an off-campus apartment), and when we moved to NY earlier this year, my boyfriend and I attempted a butter chicken recipe (link) that turned out pretty good! And no one collapsed or had a nervous breakdown in the making of it.

Saag Paneer was always one of my favorite dishes, and after looking up some recipes online, it seemed really doable. The only thing I was missing was a food processor or hand blender to help everything into a finer, creamier texture. It just so happens my birthday was a week ago, and I was lucky enough to receive an immersion blender as a birthday gift from my boyfriend’s parents! Ahhh! It’s so perfect!

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This is a staged photo because I forgot to take a picture while I was actually blending and only remembered after I washed the blender and I didn’t want to get it dirty again.

Saag Paneer (link)
1 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 teaspoon cayenne
Kosher salt
3 tablespoons plus 1 1/2 tablespoons vegetable oil
12 ounces paneer, (or see my notes below regarding a substitute), cut into 1-inch cubes
1 (16-ounce package) frozen chopped spinach (I just used a bunch of regular spinach)
1 medium white onion, finely chopped
1 (1-inch thumb) ginger, peeled and minced (about 1 tablespoon)
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 large green serrano chile, finely chopped (seeds removed if you don’t like it spicy!)
1/2 teaspoon store-bought or homemade garam masala
2 teaspoons ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 cup plain yogurt, stirred until smooth

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Very yummy cubes of cheese

In a large bowl, whisk together the turmeric, cayenne, 1 teaspoon salt and 3 tablespoons oil. Gently, drop in the cubes of paneer and gently toss, taking care not to break the cubes if you’re using the homemade kind. Let the cubes marinate while you get the rest of your ingredients together and prepped.

Chop the spinach up finely with a sharp knife.

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Chop it up finer than this. If you have a food processor or heavy duty blender that will probably work better.

Place a large nonstick skillet over medium heat, and add the paneer as the pan warms. In a couple of minutes give the pan a toss; each piece of paneer should be browned on one side. Fry another minute or so, and then remove the paneer from the pan onto a plate.

Add the remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons oil to the pan. Add the onions, ginger, garlic and chile. Now here’s the important part: saute the mixture until it’s evenly toffee-coloured, which should take about 15 minutes. Don’t skip this step – this is the foundation of the dish! If you feel like the mixture is drying out and burning, add a couple of tablespoons of water.

Add the garam masala, coriander and cumin. If you haven’t already, sprinkle a little water to keep the spices from burning. Cook, stirring often, for about 5 minutes.

Add the spinach and stir well, incorporating the spiced onion mixture into the spinach. Add a little salt and 1/2 cup of water, stir, and cook about 5 minutes with the lid off. At this point, I used my immersion blender to further blend up the spinach

Turn the heat off. Add the yogurt, a little at a time to keep it from curdling. Once the yogurt is well mixed into the spinach, add the paneer. Turn the heat back on, cover and cook until everything is warmed through, about 5 minutes. Serve with rice and/or naan (I only had brown rice).

I made a few changes to this recipe out of necessity:

  • Definitely did NOT have time to make homemade paneer, and no idea where to get it around my area. Did some research online and replaced the paneer with queso fresco, a mild, firm cheese from Latin America that is sold in abundance at the (Hispanic-leaning) grocery store closest to my apartment. I’ve had actual paneer before and I think this was a perfectly suitable substitute. Here’s (link) where I got the idea from.
  • Also didn’t have garam masala. This recipe includes directions for making your own garam masala, but I didn’t have cardamom and the grocery store close to me didn’t have any either. So I just included a bit of cinnamon and ground cloves instead. I think this, more than anything, is something I could definitely improve on the next time I make this recipe–my dish was a little lacking in the spice-aroma arena, and I’m pretty sure it’s because I was missing this.
  • And I had to make do with non-fat yogurt because the store didn’t have full-fat yogurt! How can you carry a non-fat item without its better, yummier, full-fat cousin? I am a big fan of eating the full amount of fat allowed in every kind of food
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