Palak in Hindi means spinach. But, I guarantee Palak Paneer the way it is traditionally made in North Indian households will blow your perceptions of spinach. Here, I show you how to make it the way Indian restaurants would with the creams and ghee, but also give you ideas on how to lighten it up – the way we make it at home – and Vegan-ize it!
Keep in mind, that some folks refer to this pureed and spiced spinach dish as Saag, but to a typical Punjabi from the villages of the state (like my family) saag refers only to pureed and delicately cooked mustard greens fresh from nearby fields and eaten with makhi ki roti (cornmeal rotis). That’s a recipe for a future blog post – promise!
This is a sneak peak into the recipe from my upcoming Book 3….! Keep in mind, it’s very similar to the recipe from page 175 in Vegan Indian Cooking, with a few minor tweaks. If you love paneer (homemade cheese) and don’t know if you want to sub baked tofu..please try it. My husband – who has typical Punjabi tastes – actually couldn’t even tell the difference. The key to using tofu in Indian dishes, though, is to bake or pan fry it to give it a better consistency.
2 tablespoons ghee or oil (I use grapeseed)
½ teaspoon asafetida (hing)
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon turmeric powder
1 large yellow or red onion, roughly chopped (2 cups)
1 pinch of coarse sea salt
3-inch piece ginger, peeled and diced small (1/4 cup)
10 cloves garlic, peeled and diced (1/4 cup)
2 teaspoons garam masala
2 teaspoons coriander powder
1 teaspoon red chile powder or cayenne
2 large tomatoes, roughly diced (2 cups)
1 cup water, divided
1 heaping tablespoon tomato paste
1 heaping tablespoon dried fenugreek leaves, crushed slightly in one hand to release flavor (optional) *
2-5 green Thai, Serrano, or cayenne chiles, stems removed and chopped
2 teaspoons coarse sea salt
12 packed cups fresh spinach, washed
½ – 1 cup cream, cashew cream, soy/almond milk, or coconut milk
2 heaping cups diced paneer or baked tofu **
1. Heat ghee or oil over medium-high heat.
2. Add asafetida, cumin and turmeric. Cook 40 seconds until the seeds turn reddish brown. Mix to coat seeds with oil and avoid burning and sticking.
3. Add onion and pinch of salt. Cook and mix until the onion browns slightly, about 3 minutes.
4. Add ginger and garlic. Cook another minute.
5. Add garam masala, coriander, and red chile. Cook another 40 seconds. Be careful not to burn the spices.
6. Add tomatoes and ½ cup water. Cook 2 minutes.
7. Add tomato paste, ½ cup water, fenugreek, green chiles, and salt. Cook until blended, about 3 minutes. Mixing occasionally.
8. Slowly add spinach, mixing until you have it all in the pan. Cook uncovered until the spinach cooks down, about 8 minutes.
9. Turn heat off, let the mixture cool a few minutes and then blend down. Use an immersion blender or transfer to a food processor or blender, and pulse until all ingredients break down and blend together. Here, use your own judgment. If you like it smooth, process it more. If you like texture, just pulse it a bit. Don’t blend it down at all if you really like texture. ***
10. Transfer back to you pan and simmer on medium heat another 5 – 6 minutes until all the ingredients, including the spices pull together.
11. Add cream and paneer or tofu. Cook through and serve immediately with basmati rice, roti, or naan.
Tools: 6-quart sauté pan and immersion or regular blender.
Note: If using canned tomatoes, cut the water down by half.
Makes 4 – 5 cups before adding paneer
*Thus far, I’ve only found dried Fenugreek Leaves in Indian grocery stores. Traditionally they are called Kasoori Methi. Leave them out if you can’t find them!
**Baked Tofu. This recipe is in Vegan Indian Cooking on page 68. Take one 14-oz. package of firm or extra firm tofu, and slice into 1/2-inch thick strips. Lightly spray a baking sheet. Lay strips on it and bake at 350 degrees F for 30 minutes, flipping once in between. You can also season the tofu with salt and garam masala before baking.
***My husband and I CANNOT stand eating this dish with too much texture. It’s just the way we’ve been raised. You may love it just cooked through. If so, you might want to chop the fresh spinach before cooking it.