12 July 2010

The real deal on Saag

If you were to ask me what my favorite Indian dish is, I think I'd have to go with saag every time.  Saag, a dish of slow-cooked greens that often gets chunks of paneer cheese mixed in, is an absolutely delicious concoction.  I love the creamy texture and subtle spicing of the cooked greens, and when made with sparing amounts of ghee, it is a luscious and low-fat way to get your daily dose of green vegetables.

My first encounter with this dish was at an Indian restaurant up in the Bay Area during my college years.  I'd never seen the likes of it before, and I relished every bite, wiping clean the serving dish with a piece of naan bread.  But one of the frustrating things about eating dishes that are outside of my native cuisine is that I don't have any clue how I could replicate the dish at home.  Even most ethnic cookbook recipes disappoint me, so when I find a recipe that actually does produce authentic-tasting results, I get super excited.  As it turns out, this recipe (adapted from the blog Blazing Hot Wok) made me feel like I actually have a knack for Indian cookery--I sure felt like I'd arrived when an Indian friend-of-a-friend tasted my saag and enthusiastically declared it tasted like the real deal!

For a healthy alternative to the paneer cheese, I recommend using firm tofu that has been well-drained and patted dry before frying.  Or, you can omit the frying altogether (although the fried exteriors of the cubed cheese or tofu is especially fun to chew on.)

Saag Paneer

Serves 6  (adapted from www.blazinghotwok.com)

2 Tbs. ghee (ghee is best for a velvety texture, but you can also use vegetable oil)
Minced green chilies, to taste (remove seeds for less heat)
1 onion, finely chopped
1 tsp. fenugreek seeds
6 inches of cinnamon sticks
5 cardamom pods (or ½ tsp. ground cardamom)
5 whole cloves (or ½ tsp. ground cloves)
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 ½ Tbs. grated fresh ginger
1 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. ground coriander
1 Tbs. tomato paste
2 - 1 lb. packages frozen chopped spinach
1 bunch kale (or mustard greens), de-stalked and chopped
1 lb. paneer (or tofu), cubed
~ 2 tsp. sea salt, to taste

Heat a very large pot over medium heat and add the ghee, chilies, onion, fenugreek, cinnamon, cardamom and cloves, and saute until the onions are translucent.  Adjust the heat if necessary to prevent burning.  Add the garlic and ginger and continue to cook for about 1 minute until fragrant. Add the dry spices and tomato paste and mix to thoroughly combine. Add the greens and about 2 cups water. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat to allow the greens to simmer, covered, for about 30 to 45 minutes (longer is better), stirring occasionally until the greens are tender.

Remove from heat, discard the cinnamon sticks, and then process the greens with an immersion stick blender until smooth and creamy (I don't process it completely, as I like to have a little texture from the greens remaining).

Once the saag cools a little, check for salt and season to taste.  The greens taste great (and maybe even better) if made ahead reheated the next day.

Before serving, fry the paneer or tofu in a little oil (or ghee) until golden brown on all sides and then drain on paper towels.  Check the saag again to make sure it's the consistency you want, adding more water for a thinner consistency.  Add the paneer to the saag and mix gently.  Serve with basmati rice or naan bread.

**Notes on ingredients: If you live in Santa Barbara, I recommend Pennywise Market at East Montecito and Elizabeth Streets for the ghee and spices.  Paneer cheese can be found at the Oriental Market at 5863 Hollister Avenue in Goleta.


Young Adventures... said...

Hi Erica,
I came across your blog through the Tasty Kitchen. We have enjoyed making your baked donuts, the cauliflower and lemon recipe, and the fennel with shrimp and pasta (favorite)! I look forward to trying many more! Have a beautiful day!

myrecessionkitchen said...

I made a very similar version to this the other night. I also subbed tofu for the cheese. It was delicious.

Worming through said...

Hi Erica!
Sounds delicious! I have found that stirring in a half cup of whole milk (instead of the recommended heavy cream) adds a beautiful silky texture to the saag dish. Also sprinkling a half teaspoon of garam masala (stored in air tight containers to preserve the aroma of the spices) adds a little complexity to the flavor a la Emeril with his "essence". Oh my favorite website for Indian recipes is www.sanjeevkapoor.com.
Happy cooking and looking forward to your accounts of your adventures in culinary wonderland

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