Monday, July 15, 2013

Saag Paneer with Maggie Parkinson

Maggie calls this picture "Before Morning Coffee"
This is the second recipe in a 6 part series by Maggie Parkinson of Renton, Washington.  Maggie previously authored two low carbohydrate cookbooks (as Carylton Cooper).  

She is a gourmet cook and a cheese maker.  We featured her in our May 2013 Moosletter and in an accompanying blog article.  To see her first recipe in this series, (Pizza), click here.

Part 2:
Saag Paneer
By Maggie Parkinson


Hi there!  Another recipe with cheese!

Today's recipe is for Saag Paneer. It's a big wide leap from Pizza to an Indian dish isn't it?

So why would a plump veddy British lady from the UK be interested in eating Indian food?  Well it's sort of a long story.

My dad, (whose name was Stanley Cooper but everybody called him Gary-you know why) was a long serving member of the British Armed forces.  My dad was one of the people who was pulled off a Dunkirk beach and I still have his Dunkirk medal. What a story that must have been!

Check out the photo of that here:

Anyway as part of that service he would disappear for months/years at a time to far flung places like India and Egypt and come back with the ability to trot out phrases like  As-Salaam alaikum which we thought was frightfully impressive!  I wonder if he knew what it meant?

Anyway as you can imagine he ate a lot of foreign food and fell in love with the food of India. (Pretty amazing when you realize he wouldn't eat cabbage or squash!)

Eventually when he returned he would ask my Mom to make curry. For Mom who was not trained to cook anything, this was a process of putting meat into a pan with veggies and a lot of curry powder.  Apparently Dad had developed a taste for really HOT as in ***** level and he would add more raw curry powder to his lunch as he ate it and then broke out into a sweat. I don't actually have a memory of eating this concoction (small mercies for which we are grateful) but it must have been pretty awful!

Then my legs grew longer and I eventually got this techy job at a place called the ROYAL AIRCRAFT ESTABLISHMENT at Farnborough close to my home.  They still have big air-shows there and make lots of noise for the folk who live in the area; our house was right at the end  of the main runway!

You'd be amazed at the shape and size of the calculators we used in those days which were mechanical and clanked away very noisily.

These are the exact models!

I am so old!  Across the hallway was an interesting dude who would tell me stories about how he was working on rocket technology for shuttles to space stations. I thought he was nuts!   Last laugh's on me old boy!

I left there after three years and went to work at one of London Universities colleges to write software for a professor, and rocket dude, (OK his name was LIONEL)  would come to visit and invite me out for lunch or dinner.  It was always Indian food.
The first time I ate REAL Indian food with Leo I reacted badly-I don't know why.

The second time was better.

By the third time we went out for Indian food I was hooked and have been for decades!

So that's the backstory-thanks for hanging in there!  There is no doubt in my mind that Indian food when done right, (as distinct from Mom's curry powder creation) is the most subtle and fascinating cuisine.   You can start with about three simple spices;  I personally have a large box of them as I have challenged myself to become more familiar with the techniques and flavors.  I am much happier being able to "knock out" stuff at home than having to get dressed up to go out when I crave things! We drive many miles to get the good stuff sometimes!

I'm not the biggest fan of spinach but I love it in this form; having a tendency to be anemic, I gots to get my spinach and this is mostly how I do it….

Saag paneer is usually spinach and Indian PANEER cheese, simply spiced and served on as a veggy side at dinner.  If you are a vegetarian it can become more prominent in the meal as the paneer itself can be the protein component.  The real reason I am featuring it today is because it uses CHEESE, of course, and because paneer is easily and simply made at home.

I've tried many different ways to make SAAG and this recipe has become my favorite. It's spicing is very subtle and if you make Mexican Chili, you probably have all the spices right in your kitchen.

I am not going to go through the process of making the paneer itself as there are versions of this in the Cheesemaking files, ok?
Before we begin the assembly I want to explain the use of an unusual ingredient - broccoli!

One of the ways I learn how to cook is by watching experts on the telly… and I watch all the Indian experts (Aarti Sequeira, Anjum Anand, Bal Arneson) avidly.  I make no secret of the fact that this recipe is my own concoction which I have evolved from recipes of these ladies and my acknowledgements to them!  One day when viewing I saw that the SAAG dish being created contained spinach, broccoli and rapini!  Wow! I thought that saag was only made with spinach!

I don't know if you've ever bought home a suitcase-sized box of spinach and cooked it, only to find that you've got product the size of a tennis ball;  been there, done that and don't do it anymore! But if you want to use fresh, go for it !

So as rapini is hard to find and spendy, I turned to broccoli to fortify my saag and the results are delightful. The fiber in the broccoli, (a quality that our wimpy spinach lacks) rounds out the dish, you get a lot more for your dollar and it doesn't significantly change the flavor of the dish at all! Bingo!

So our quick check-list of ingredients looks like this: Paneer,- fresh or store bought, turmeric, chili powder, (that's like the stuff you use in Mexican chili, not super hot chili powder) salt, oil, (any kind you like,) frozen spinach, broccoli, onion, fresh garlic, a jalapeno chili, garam masala, ground coriander, ground cumin and yogurt. I have expounded on garam masala below and where to get it.

The process of making the dish is really simple. We're going to marinate the paneer, and then brown it.  We're going to cook the veggies and then blend them together, so you'll need a food processor for this.  A blender might work with lots of tamping assistance though. Then we just combine the two, it's relatively quick and very easy!

Those roses are from my garden!  Woo HOO!

The detailed list of ingredients is:

1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon chili powder
Kosher salt
Vegetable oil
6  ounces paneer, (cut into ½ inch cubes)
1 (16-ounce package) frozen chopped spinach
2 heads of fresh broccoli.  (I SUPPOSE you could use frozen equivalent but I haven't tried it.)
1 medium white onion, finely chopped
1 inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and minced , about 1 tablespoon   (see my kitchen note at the bottom)
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 jalapeno, finely chopped (I removed the seeds, leave them in if you're happy with heat factor but Saag is not usually hot!)
½ -1 teaspoon store-bought or homemade garam masala. (Another kitchen note)
2 teaspoons ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 cup plain yogurt, stirred until smooth
1/2 cup water

Kitchen Notes:
1)     I used to buy fresh ginger almost every week, and throw it away when I didn't use it.  Now I buy chunks of it, scrape the skin from it with the side of a teaspoon, and then freeze it in a baggie.
When I am ready to use it, I grate it into gorgeous ginger ice with a good microplane grater. (This is the WAY TO GO when it comes to graters so get one!) This way you never get a lump of ginger in your recipe and you don't waste any ever!  Well apart from the nubbins you ditch to save your thumb from the grater that is! (You can see my piece of ginger in the photo next to the onion above-it looks rather like Grandma's old false teeth!)

2)    There are more formulae for garam masala than I have hairs on my chinny-chin-chin, but essentially it is a combination of pumpkin pie type spices like cinnamon, cumin, allspice, cloves, cardamom,  and every self-respecting Indian household uses grandma's recipe make their own. I myself found a bag of dried spices in a whacko store, took out the chilies , (Garam is NOT hot) and ground my own.  You probably won't find it in your local grocery store, but it is easily obtained in any Indian store or online spice companies like This company has more spices than you will ever imagine and reasonable prices so check them out.  I even bought butter powder here! You can of course also google the formula for garam masala and show off by mixing your own blend.


Drain the spinach in a sieve, (I am assuming you thawed it out) and do that over a jug or bowl.  Squeeze it with your hands or the back of a wooden spoon to get the moisture out but save it for now.

Take your paneer lump and carefully cut it into ½ cubes. If you're using the fresh kind you will have to do this gently. I currently have a big old 2 pound chunk of paneer I am working through and that has the consistency of Jack cheese so I can be cavalier about this operation!

On a large flate plate, stir together the turmeric, chili powder, 1 teaspoon salt and about two tablespoons of oil. Gently, place the cubes of paneer onto this mixture and gently turn them covering all sides. Let the cubes marinate while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.

Be careful with this operation; turmeric is one of nature's best dyes and if you mess up with this you will wear a souvenir of the dish for ever.  Sometime I think one really should cook in the nude!

Next let's get the onion going. We are going to caramelize the onion to bring out it's sweetness which will help balance the natural bitterness of the spinach. Put another 2-3 tablespoons of oil into a good sized fry pan and gently cook the onions, garlic, and chopped chili.  Don't rush it and stir often until they are a nice golden brown. You can proceed with other steps and just stir these guys occasionally to prevent them from burning.

When they're just about ready add in your cumin, coriander, and garam masala. I think the recipe needs the full teaspoon of garam but if you're timid, start with half of it and add the rest later to your taste.    Don't let the spices burn and add in some spinach water to prevent that.

Now cook the broccoli. I am all for short cuts and I simply put mine in salted water and microwaved it until it was tender; it helps to chop the broccoli of course. You can of course steam it if you wish, it just needs to be soft!

Next take, the drained spinach and the drained broccoli and put them into a food processor.  Whizz the whole thing up until it is very smooth; needless to say you may have to whizz and scrape a few times to achieve this and add a little spinach water
Insert "Whizzed up greens"

Once it is a smooth green paste you should add it to the onion mixture and stir away to get it all incorporated evenly.

Now is the time to season with a couple of pinches of salt and taste.  Add pepper if you wish as I tend to do. If the mixture is very thick you can add it a little of the remaining spinach water or regular old H2O

Remove the pan from the heat and slowly stir in the yoghurt.

Put the pan in a warm place while we crisp up the cubes of paneer. If you like you can do this earlier while the onions are cooking in another pan.

So get a frying pan reasonably hot and add a bit more oil.  Plop in your paneer cubes and brown them on all sides.  You can toss the pan to do this; remembering that I am NOT usually nude, I turn the cubes one at a time until they're browned all over. Yes this takes patience-food is the only department where I have an abundance of that; the Pirate wants to know why that is!

Once your mixture is all smooth and yogurt-ized pour it into a nice dish and dot with the cubes of paneer.

I served this with a very cool Malaysian beef and sweet potato curry, a piece of Naan and a good blob of Mango chutney which is a personal addiction.

For those of you who want to eat the saag without a meat curry on the side I can heartily recommend Bal Arneson's Cauliflower koftas which incorporate Mozzarella cheese. But if you make them, double the recipe!  They're really good! (I haven't even made the raita though.)

Well, I hope this inspires you to try a new cheesy adventure? 
I'm off to my kitchen to figure out what the heck's for dinner before the pirate comes home hungry!

As always, thanks for reading!    

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