Thursday, January 26, 2012

Saag Paneer

It's hard to count how many of my meals begin with a browned onion. Half of them? The dicing, crying and sauteeing is the standard first step down the path of most of my dinners, especially in these chilly winter days of comfort food. When I think of a good hearty meal, I grab for the drawer full of papery skins.

But recently I brought dinner for some friends with a ridiculously adorable new baby. They set up a delivery calendar on one of those handy websites, which also let them detail their dietary preferences and restrictions (and, smartly, see what other people are bringing, thus avoiding the dreaded all-lasagna maternity leave). My friends are vegetarian, and listed a love of Indian food. And an allergy to onions and peppers.

While onion allergies are thankfully rare, a temporary avoidance is not that uncommon in new parents (some of whom find that the allium family gives their babies gas). But thankfully, there's actually a long tradition of onion-free cooking in Indian cuisine, thanks to some religious prohibitions I don't fully understand. Which meant that I could easily find a onion-free inspiration for saag paneer.

This dish -- cubes of mild white cheese in a creamy, delicately seasoned spinach sauce -- is my go-to order in any Indian restaurants. Even when I try to branch out, I keep coming back to it. It's just that good. And it's great for new parents, giving a shot of the healthy green vegetables, protein and calcium that new mommas need, along with the richness and delicious flavor that under-slept bodies crave. I also upped its parent-friendly quotient (and flavor) with some fenugreek, an herb said to help with breastfeeding. I know this picture looks kinda muddy (I was running out the door to make my delivery), but it tasted great. Even if you have the good fortune to enjoy onions, you should give this version a try.

Saag Paneer (for new moms)

adapted from several sources, most notably Manjula's Kitchen
serves ~6, or more as part of a larger spread

2 Tbsp high-heat oil, such as coconut or grapeseed
12 ounces paneer, cut into cubes or triangles (large pieces make for a more dramatic presentation, but smaller pieces may be easier to eat)
1 tsp cumin seeds
large pinch asafoetida*
1 Tbsp ground coriander
1 tsp chili powder (I omitted for my pepper-free friend)
1 tsp ground turmeric
1 1/2 cups tomato puree
1" ginger, peeled and grated
1 tsp coarse salt
2 bunches spinach, washed and finely chopped (you can pulse in a food processor)
2 Tbsp dried fenugreek leaves (optional -- available at Indian groceries)
1 half bunch cilantro, divided, washed and finely chopped
2 Tbsp flour
1 cup half-and-half or cream

Heat a pan over a medium-high heat, and add the oil until hot but not smoking. Add the paneer cubes, and fry for a few minutes until they just begin to color, then flip and brown the other side. Remove from the pan and set aside.

Add the cumin seeds, asafoetida, coriander, and chili powder to the pan, and fry for a half minute or so to toast (the cumin seeds should darken). Add the turmeric, tomato puree, ginger and salt (the tomato puree will probably sputter and spit, so step back a bit), stirring to combine. Cook for a few minutes, until the tomato puree reduces somewhat.

When the mixture has cooked down a bit, ad the spinach, fenugreek leaves, and half of the cilantro. Let the mixture come to something of a simmer, then reduce the heat to medium-low, cover, and let cook for ~25 minutes (you can cook for less time if you're in a hurry, but the long-cooked approach leads to a nice creamy result). Stir occasionally, and add liquid if it dries out.

When the mixture has cooked down, stir together the flour with a bit of the cream or half-and-half to make a paste, then whisk in the remainder of the cup. Stir this mixture into the spinach, and let simmer for a few minutes, until the dish thickens and comes together. Add the reserved paneer cubes, and let heat through. Taste to adjust seasonings, and serve, topped with remaining cilantro.

* asafoetida is a funky-smelling resin available at Indian groceries -- just a small pinches adds a great savory bass note to Indian dishes, especially those without onions and garlic.


  1. So many times I start cooking an onion before I even know what it's going to become, but I never get sick of them. I'm hoping to take an Indian cooking class soon, there is so much to learn about that. If I were the independently wealthy type, I think I'd get myself over there right away to learn firsthand. Meanwhile, I'm going to make this, and I'm going to love it!

  2. My partner's mom is allergic to onions. When she come over, it makes cooking dinner exceptionally hard. I feel like EVERY dish I make has either onion or shallots in it!
    Thankfully, I'm not allergic to anything!