A few times every month, I like to cook up a dinner that celebrates Indian cuisine. Never just one dish or two, I crowd the table with daal, grilled flatbread or rice, chana masala and this, my all time favorite dish, palak or saag paneer aka spinach with cheese.
Paneer is one of the easiest cheeses to make, requiring nothing more than whole milk and lemon juice or vinegar. It’s very straightforward and always delicious.This entire dish, start to finish, takes less than an hour to complete. I usually make the paneer earlier in the day if I can, to give it plenty of time to firm up, but even 30 minutes in the refrigerator will do.
You’ll want naan or grilled flatbread to sop up all the tasty spiced sauce, or serve it over fluffy basmati or jasmine rice.
Don’t fret if you don’t have ghee, use butter (and watch carefully so it doesn’t burn) or use grapeseed oil or a combination of the two. The ghee does add a lovely flavor to the dish, so if you have the time, make it. Here’s a link to making ghee at home. Every recipe has you start with one pound of butter. Do not feel obligated to make that much; start with a quarter pound and see how it goes.
Serves 4 as part of a larger Indian meal or 2 as the only entree
1 quart whole milk
2 tablespoons lemon juice or white vinegar
1/4 teaspoon salt
10 to 12 ounces baby spinach leaves
3/4 cup water
1/2 teaspoon minced ginger
1/2 teaspoon minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon serrano chile
2 tablespoons ghee or grapeseed oil
1/2 teaspoon cumin seed
1/4 cup minced onion
1/2 teaspoon minced garlic
1/3 cup canned, crushed tomatoes
1/4 teaspoon garam masala
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
2 to 3 tablespoons cream
Make the paneer. In a medium saucepan, heat the milk to 200°F. Remove from the heat, stir in the lemon juice, cover and let it sit off the heat for 10 minutes.
Set up a colander lined with cheesecloth, a jelly bag, or a whisper thin all-cotton tea towel. In the pan, the curds should have separated from the whey. If they still have not made a clear separation (white fluffy curds floating in yellowish whey), add another tablespoon of lemon juice and rest the cheese another ten minutes.
Ladle the curds into the lined colander. Pick up the four corners of the cheesecloth and squeeze the moisture out. Form the cheese into a block about one inch thick. Wrap well in the cheesecloth, then place on a plate and place another plate on top. Weight the whole thing with a jar or heavy can and refrigerate for 30 minutes while you make the palak.
Steam or microwave the spinach for 2 minutes until entirely wilted. (You may substitute frozen spinach, just defrost and squeeze out all the moisture before continuing with the recipe.) Place the spinach leaves in the blender. Add the water, ginger, garlic and jalapeno and puree thoroughly.
In a medium skillet, heat the ghee and cumin seed until aromatic, about 2 minutes. Add the onion and saute until deeply browned. Add the garlic and cook for just a minute, then add the tomatoes, garam masala, turmeric and cayenne. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer for five minutes.
Pour in the spinach puree, raise the heat again and let the mixture simmer actively for about five minutes, until slightly thickened.
Unwrap the paneer and cut it into cubes. Add the cheese to the palak and heat through. Finish the dish with the cream, stir and serve piping hot.