I’ve been on a kick of making Indian food recently. I just love the bold flavors of the spices and I find it’s easy to make vegetable-centric meals like this Saag paneer entree. The chilies in this dish help to keep you warm during chilly winter days! Going for meatless Monday or just need an idea for a hearty and (fairly) healthy vegetarian dish? This is your winner.
Saag paneer is a spinach-based dish combined which combines fragrant spices with paneer, a rubbery Indian cheese. If you can’t find paneer, then halloumi, the rubbery Greek cheese can easily be swapped in its place. Some iterations of the dish serve the spinach whole but I chose to purée it for easier scooping when using warmed naan.
It’s amazing how much spinach you can put into the pot and the minimal ball that comes out. A pound and a half may seem like a mountain of spinach but after it’s blanched you end up with a mere handful.
The saag paneer is seasoned with a spice blend of garam masala, coriander and turmeric powder. Garam masala is a spice blend so not all will be the same. The mixture often differs region to region. It’s typically made from a combination of cinnamon, bay leaves, cumin, coriander, cardamom, peppercorns, cloves, chili, nutmeg and mace though the blend can vary.
Bird’s eye chilies or Thai chilies are small, pointy chili peppers that pack a punch. They add an intense heat to the saag paneer with fruity flavor to dishes rating between 50,000 and 100,000 Scoville units. They can sometimes be difficult to find so I usually buy a large bag of them at my local Asian market. I store them in the freezer in a resealable plastic bag. It’s actually even easier to cut them when they are frozen.
Paneer is an Indian cow’s milk cheese made from milk curdled with acid and pressed. This cheese doesn’t melt which makes it great for grilling or pan-frying and it adds texture to the saag mixture. While it can be added raw, I love pan-frying it to give it a bit of a crispy texture. If you can’t find paneer I recommend substituting with halloumi or Panela in this saag paneer recipe.
Ghee is clarified butter often used in Indian cooking. The milk solids and water are removed leaving the pure butterfat. In this recipe it can easily be swapped with unsalted butter.
Bring a large pot of water over medium-high heat to a boil. Add the spinach and blanch until bright green and tender. Remove spinach to a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking process. Drain the spinach then squeeze out excess water.
Heat a large sauté pan over medium heat, add the oil and heat through. Add the onion and sauté until tender.
Add the garlic, ginger and chili and cook for an additional minute, stirring occasionally. Stir in the garam masala, coriander, and turmeric, stirring to cook the spices for just a few seconds.
Lower the heat to medium-low and add the spinach to the pan. Stir the spinach mixture and vegetable stock together. Cook until the greens are soft and deep green and most of the vegetable stock evaporates.
Add the mixture to the bowl of a food processor fitted with the blade attachment and pulse until a coarse paste forms (should look similar to pesto).
Return to the pan then stir in the yogurt.
Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add the paneer and cook until golden brown, then flip the pieces and repeat on the other side. Remove and add to the saag mixture.
Heat medium saucepan over medium heat, add the ghee and allow to melt. Add the shallot and sauté until tender. Stir in the garlic and sauté, for an additional minute. Pour in the basmati rice and turmeric powder, stirring to coat the rice and sautéing for 30 seconds to toast the rice.
Add the stock and bring the mixture to a boil. Cover and simmer the rice until the stock has been absorbed. Season with salt and fluff with a fork.
To serve, divide the rice among bowls and ladle the saag paneer over the rice. Serve warmed naan on the side (or omit for a gluten free version).
Be careful when cooking with turmeric, it tends to stain anything white that it touches. If that happens, you can soak the stained items in bleach or, if you want to go for a less chemical method, mix equal parts baking soda and water and let it sit before scrubbing.
While the two are sometimes used interchangeably in the US, palak paneer is a North Indian dish made from a similar spinach mixture puréed until a smooth gravy forms. Saag paneer can also be made with a variety of leafy greens while palak paneer is only made with spinach.
If you enjoy this saag paneer recipe, I recommend checking out some of these
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