Monday, December 15, 2008

Here's some spinach

I know it is December. I know Christmas is in 10 days. I know this space should be full of scrumptious cookies, rich cakes and sweet candies worthy of a holiday feast. But you know, we all still need to eat dinner. All month long. And as much as I'd love to subsist on the baked good, sometimes I need some non-sugar sustenance. Maybe even a green vegetable. The horror!

So here's some spinach. But do not fret; this is spinach at its most amazingly delicious. The dish is called palak paneer and it's my very favorite item on any Indian restaurant's menu. (I dig you, too, naan, please don't feel left out.) I have long been a fan of Indian food. Husband and I enjoy going out for Indian; in fact, during our lengthy courtship I recall the two of us seeking Indian food on King St. during a visit to Charleston, South Carolina. We ordered some Indian beer...there might have been some pakora...I am pretty sure it was phenomenally romantic.

Cooking Indian at home, however, would seem to be a different matter. You think: too many ingredients! Too much time! It won't be as good as the restaurant's! Hand me the takeout menu! But I swear to you...there aren't that many ingredients, it doesn't take that long and, holy cow, it is better than the restaurant's. If you have everything on hand, and with just a slight bit of planning, in fact you can whip up some palak paneer -- the recipe includes a batch of homemade cheese, even! -- on a weeknight.

Your effort will be handsomely rewarded with an amazingly flavorful, mouth-watering dinner. Deep yet subtle, just a hint of spice even though the recipe doesn't call for anything hot, rich yet light. The homemade paneer, which is a simple Indian cheese, is mild and creamy, yet fried in vegetable oil to develop a pleasing brown crust: perfect little nuggets studded throughout the creamy spinach. Paired with saffron rice, the dish takes on a patina of professionalism. When you pack up the leftovers in translucent plastic containers, you will think you have takeout in your hand.

Give this recipe a shot. Fill up on the delicious spinach. Eat a square and nourishing meal. Then, get back to the sugar. Christmas is in 10 days, don't you know?!?


Paneer recipe adapted from "Gourmet"

Note: This recipe is equally delicious, if a little different, if you sub extra-firm tofu for the paneer. It saves a little time and is really quite a yummy alternative. Just press the tofu between a few kitchen towels to extract some of its moisture, then brown in a skillet just as you would the paneer in this recipe.

For the paneer:

10 c. whole milk
2 t. kosher salt
1/3 c. freshly-squeezed lemon juice

For the spinach:

5 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
3-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled
1 lb. baby spinach
1/3 c. vegetable oil
2 t. coriander seeds
1 t. cumin seeds
4 whole cloves
2 allspice berries
3-inch cinnamon stick
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
4 plum tomatoes, peeled and chopped
1/2 c. heavy cream
1/2 t. kosher salt

Make the paneer. Line a colander with four layers of cheesecloth; set aside. In a large pot, bring the milk to a full boil over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally. This happens quicker than you might think, so keep an eye on it to avoid a boil-over. Add the salt and lemon juice and remove from the heat. Stir gently as the milk separates and the curd forms. Let stand for about 2 minutes.

Pour the separated milk into the cheesecloth-lined colander. Allow to cool enough so that you can handle it.

Gather up the edges of the cheesecloth and twist to squeeze out as much of the liquid as possible. With the cheese still in the cheesecloth, wrap the whole thing in a kitchen towel. Place the package in a bowl, put a plate on top of it and weigh it down with a large can or a mason jar full of beans or pasta. Let stand at room temperature until firm, about 1 hour. Unwrap the cheese and, using a serrated knife, cut into 1/2-inch cubes.

While the cheese is firming, make the spinach. Place the garlic, ginger and 2 T. water into the bowl of a food processor and finely chop until it becomes a paste. Remove from the food processor and set aside.

In a large covered pot, cook the spinach with 1/2 c. water over medium-high heat until wilted and tender, about 2 minutes. Let cool slightly. Place the spinach, without draining, in the bowl of the food processor and chop roughly. Set aside.

Heat the vegetable oil in a large non-stick skillet (non-stick is key) over medium-high heat. Brown the paneer, gently turning with a wooden spoon to avoid breaking the pieces. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the paneer to a plate lined with paper towel, leaving the oil behind in the skillet.

Add the coriander seeds, cumin seeds, cloves, allspice and cinnamon stick to the skillet and cook, stirring, until the spices are fragrant and the cinnamon stick unfurls slightly, about 1 minute. You will think: Unfurls?! This cinnamon stick is not going to unfurl. Whatever, recipe. But it does!

Add the onions to the spices and cook, stirring frequently, until lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic-ginger paste and cook for about 2 minutes. Add the tomatoes and cook, stirring, until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the spinach puree and simmer the sauce, stirring occasionally, until thickened and most of the liquid evaporates, about 10 minutes. Add the cream and simmer, again stirring occasionally until thickened. Gently stir in the paneer and the salt.

Serve immediately with saffron rice; season with more salt, if needed.

For the saffron rice:

1 c. basmati rice
1 1/2 c. turkey or chicken stock (homemade is best)
1 T. olive oil
Pinch saffron
Pinch kosher salt

Place all ingredients in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Bring the mixture to a boil, uncovered, stirring occasionally. When the rice is boiling, cover with a tight-fitting lid, reduce the heat to low and simmer for 15-20 minutes. Fluff with a fork and serve.

Makes 6 servings. 


Anonymous said...

to celebrate successful studying for exams, my husband and I went out for Indian over the weekend, and it is by far the most luxurious treat. The complexity of the meals and flavors absolutely makes me swoon. I have made many a curry in my day, but
i have yet to make my own paneer, and you might have inspired me to do so :)

Anonymous said...

i told matt you posted this (our favorite) he said, too hard, too many ingredients...that is what you said, untrue! anyways, can't wait to make this.

happy holidays

Dianne said...

Hi Missy! See, Matt and I have similar apprehensions re: cooking Indian at home. I hope you guys do make this...delicious palak paneer is definitely within the reach of the home cook! Thanks for reading, and happy holidays to you guys as well!

L*Joy, I hope I have inspired you to give this dish a try! It really is surprisingly simple. You're right -- Indian food is absolutely a luxurious treat.