Aside from the bountiful choices of fabulous flavors found in Indian and Southeast Asian cooking, its appealing aspect of extremely healthy food draws me back to it time after time. In the West Indian state of Gujarat, the emphasis is on vegetables and freshness.
Most Gujaratis are strictly vegetarian and it is from this region that I draw inspiration for some of my gluten-free recipes as well as recipes for overall enjoyment at both small and large gatherings. The majority of Gujaratis observe a belief that all living beings deserve respect and that taking of any life for personal enjoyment is forbidden. Hence, it is in this region that I find vegetarian cooking at its perfection.
Saag Paneer, which is simply spinach with an Indian cheese in a flavorful sauce, is one of my favorite dishes. The flavorings and sauce are considered beneficial medicinally and the spinach is a highly touted vegetable for overall well-being.
My recipe is based on those I enjoyed in India, in Indian restaurants and under the guidance of my culinary mentors. It’s simple, serves 4-6 diners and reheats well the next day.
Gujarati Saag Paneer
2 lbs. of fresh baby spinach, washed, stems removed
(Substitution: 2 lbs. fresh leaf spinach, washed, stems removed and coarsely chopped. Do not use frozen spinach. It is too watery and gives off a metallic taste that will ruin the recipe.)
¼ cup Ghee or melted, unsalted butter
½ lb. cubed Paneer cheese (an Indian semi-soft cheese) or substitute
½ lb. firm tofu or ½ lb. feta cheese that has been rinsed to remove excess salt
1 large onion, chopped
6 garlic cloves, minced
½ inch piece of ginger, minced
Indian Curry Powder, homemade* or store-bought but NOT Asian:
Depending on your preference this amount can vary
from 1 ½ teaspoons to 1 tablespoon. I use about 1 tablespoon.
1 jalapeño, seeded and chopped (omit if you don’t like heat)
¾ cup buttermilk
¼ cup Greek yogurt (I like Fage)
Salt to taste
Wash and stem the spinach and set aside in a colander to drain.
Assemble the remainder of ingredients near your cooking area. This will allow you to proceed with ease through the recipe.
Heat the ghee (or butter) in a deep sauté pan over medium high heat. Add the cubed Paneer and fry while tossing occasionally to brown on all sides. Be gentle because you do not want to break the cubes. When the cubes are lightly browned, remove them from the pan with a slotted spoon and set aside.
In the same pan, over medium high heat, sauté the onions, garlic, ginger and jalapeño. Cook, while stirring, for about 5 minutes or until the onions soften. Sprinkle the mixture with curry powder and stir to combine. Within a minute or so, you should be able to smell the spicy aroma.
At this point, slowly add the spinach while stirring and folding to mix with the aromatics. As soon as the spinach is bright green and softened, turn off the heat (if using electric heat, remove the pan from the burner) and stir in the buttermilk and yogurt.
Mix the sauce and spinach to combine well. The mixture should be thick and creamy. If it is too “watery”, add another ¼ cup yogurt. Now, gently add the Paneer cubes and combine them with the spinach mixture.
This dish can be served as a vegetarian main course with basmati rice and/or any type of flat bread. It’s also a versatile side dish when combined with a variety of other Indian foods.
*Basic Homemade Mild Curry Powder
Makes about ½ – ¾ cup
½ cup coriander seeds
4 tablespoons cumin seeds
2 tablespoons fennel seeds
2 tablespoons fenugreek seeds
4 dried red chilies (for hotter flavor, add more chilies)
5 curry leaves
1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns
1 tablespoon chili powder
1 tablespoon ground turmeric
¼ teaspoon salt (may omit if observing a low salt or no salt diet)
Dry roast the whole spices (omitting the chili powder, turmeric and salt) in a large pan over medium heat for 8-10 minutes, shaking the pan to keep the spices from burning or sticking. When the spices darken, you will enjoy a fragrant aroma. That means you can remove the pan from the heat and allow the spices to cool.
Grind the toasted whole spices in a spice mill, coffee grinder or with a mortar and pestle until they become a fine powder.
Combine the ground spices with the chili powder, turmeric and, if using, the salt. Mix well. Store in a glass, airtight container.