This is a saag paneer that uses a truckload of spinach, gets tang from buttermilk and a finishing squeeze of fresh lemon, magic from a host of spices, and a bit of heat from ginger and chile flakes. I bring on a bit of crunch and contrasting texture where ever I can - paneer, toasted sesame seeds, and add a touch of decadence with a splash of cream (you can use yogurt, buttermilk, or cashew cream if you like).
Saag Paneer Inspiration
A bit of context. We make saag paneer at home a lot. Wayne started it, years ago, when he cooked Merrill's saag paneer one night, and from there it became a regular thing. The recipe has evolved and meandered quite a bit, so I thought I'd share the version I've settled into with you. I try to make it exactly the way I want to eat it, and I'd encourage you experiment as well.
To that end, for this take on saag paneer, I cook the paneer cubes until they aren't just golden, they need to go well beyond that. I like them crispy cornered, and outright crusty. Also, the chop on the spinach is something I pay extra attention to, and I chop the mountain of spinach (or greens) you need here into flecks the size of big confetti. This assures no slurpy, sloppy, un-chewable greens. And I (almost) always use fresh spinach, but you can do a (more traditional) blend of mustard greens, chard, etc. if you like!
You see a lot of recipes calling for heavy cream, but I generally prefer the tang of buttermilk as a creamy finishing touch. But if that creamy element isn't what you like, more recently, I came across something in the book Lord Krishna's Cuisine, The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking I hadn't thought of in the past. If you're making or using fresh paneer, you can use the whey liquid surrounding the cheese to loosen things up and get a bit of an extra vitamin, mineral, protein boost. Maybe you use it in place of the heavy cream, or buttermilk, or in combination.
Toasted sesame seeds bring some textural crunch, and a lemon juice to finish are both nice.
No surprise, having leftovers is great - spread it thin crackers, use it in a scramble, or inside this sort of quesadilla. You make your own spice blend here, but you can certainly experiment with your own or a good store-bought blend.
A Really Good Saag Paneer
A bunch of head notes here, apologies. This recipe calls for an incredible amount of spinach. Just know, it cooks down dramatically. I call for baby spinach, because it saves me having to trim a lot of unruly stems from bundles of spinach, but use any blend of greens you have on hand. For example, feel free to use any fresh spinach, but make sure it isn't overly stem-y. If you have kale or mustard greens you need to use, trade it in for some of the spinach if you like. On the cheese front, halloumi is a solid/ok substitute for paneer, but if you can get good paneer you should. And if you like a higher cheese to spinach ratio, cook up 12 ounces of paneer. If I have canned crushed or whole tomatoes that need to be used up, I throw some of those in too (chopped/drained) - good.
- 1 1/2 pounds fresh (baby) spinach, well washed and dried
- 2 tablespoons ghee, clarified butter, or unsalted butter
- 8 - 12 oz paneer cheese, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
- 2 medium onions, finely chopped
- scant 1/2 teaspoon fine grain sea salt
- 3 medium garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
- 1 tablespoon spice mixture* (see below)
- 1/4 teaspoon turmeric
- 1 cup buttermilk
- splash of cream or dollop of plain yogurt (optional)
- fresh lemon to finish, and toasted sesame seeds to sprinkle
Chop the spinach well, and set aside in a large bowl.
While you're chopping spinach, cook the paneer in one tablespoon of the butter over medium heat in a large skillet. Make sure the paneer is in a single layer and use a spatula to flip it regularly so all sides get deeply brown. This typically takes 7 minutes or so. Remove from the pan and set aside.
Heat the other tablespoon of butter in your largest soup pot. Add the onions and salt, and saute until the onions soften up, five minutes or so. Add the garlic, ginger, spice mixture, and turmeric. Cook, stirring frequently, until fragrant and nicely combined - a minute or two.
Turn the heat up to medium-high and add the spinach to the pan all at once, if possible. Cook, stirring all the while, until the spinach is collapsed and wilted, a couple of minutes. If you need to add the spinach in batches (adding more spinach as it collapses), that is fine too, just do it as quickly as possible.
Stir in the buttermilk and cream and heat gently while stirring. If the mixture seems dry, add more buttermilk a splash at a time (this rarely happens to me). Taste and add more salt if necessary and more red pepper flakes if you like. Add a generous squeeze of fresh lemon juice, stir in the paneer, sprinkle with sesame seeds and serve.
*Spice Mixture: Use a mortar and pestle or spice grinder to grind the following spices as finely as possible: 2 tablespoons cumin seed, 1 tablespoons coriander seed, 2 teaspoons mustard seed, 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes, 1/8 teaspoon cardamom seeds, 3 whole cloves. Store in an airtight container and use as needed.