Fall Fest: Paneer With Spinach

By: Michelle Buffardi

We're teaming up with other food and garden bloggers to host Summer Fest 2010, a season-long garden party. Each week we'll feature favorite garden-to-table recipes and tips to help you enjoy the bounty, whether you're harvesting your own goodies or buying them fresh from the market. To join in, check out awaytogarden.com.

We've transitioned from summer fest to fall fest, and this week we're talking about spinach.  Paneer with Spinach, also called Palak Paneer, is a vegetarian Indian dish made with . . . well, spinach, and paneer, a firm Indian cheese. It's quite popular; it gets prominent placement on Indian menus and is usually part of an all-you-can-eat Indian buffet. But making your own at home is easier than you think.

First, let's clear up some myths about Indian food:
True or false: Indian food is spicy.

False. Indian food is spiced, but not necessarily spicy. It relies on such flavors as cumin, coriander, tumeric, ginger, mustard seed, nutmeg and cardamom. Chilies and cayenne are used in some recipes as well, but can be adjusted to taste, so when you cook Indian food at home, you can make it as spicy as you like it.

True or false: Indian food is best left to the professionals; it should be ordered from restaurants and can't be made at home.

False. Anjum Anand is known around here for making healthy Indian food at home and on her show, Indian Food Made Easy, and our resident Spice Goddess, Bal Arneson, uses the aforementioned exotic spices to whip up easy, exotic dishes at home.

True or false: To start cooking Indian food at home, I just need a few basic spices.

So true. Stock your pantry with a few essentials, and you'll be able to get started. Don't be intimidated and try to buy everything though. Start with one recipe or two and buy the spices you'll need for those, then try to use them again another week in a new recipe. It's best to buy the freshest spices you can get your hands on, right from an Asian store where there's a higher turnover.

Now back to the Paneer With Spinach. The flavors of the resulting dish are complex, but the recipe is not; there's not even that much chopping, just onions, garlic and ginger. And you can find all of the spices you need -- cumin seed, coriander and garam masala at an Indian or Asian market, along with the paneer. Paneer is a firm cheese, similar in texture to firm tofu. In fact, if you can't find or don't like paneer, you can substitute firm tofu.

First, you'll want to wash your spinach really well, especially if it's from a farm and not a package.

When you begin to cook the onions that you've chopped and the cumin seeds, your kitchen will start to smell amazing.

While the onions and cumin are cooking, blanch your spinach and puree it in a food processor or blender until its smooth. You'll add some garlic, ginger, hot peppers (don't let the seeds escape if you want to keep the dish mild) and the rest of the spices to the pan, followed by the spinach, then the paneer and some milk or cream. That all cooks for a few minutes, and viola, you're done.

The result will be creamy, bright green spinach, studded with cumin seeds and chunks of mild cheese, that tastes fresh and not like it's been sitting on a steam table all day (because let's face it, sometimes takeout tastes that way). Serve it with basmati rice or naan bread -- you can buy naan at an Indian market, or if you're feeling really ambitious, make your own. And if you want to get even more fancy (and authentic) make a Mango Lassi to go along with your meal.

Paneer with Spinach

Recipe courtesy Anjum Anand

1 1/2 pounds baby spinach, washed

3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 large onion, chopped

1 thumb-size piece fresh ginger, peeled, and sliced into long julienne strips

1 1/2 tablespoons chopped garlic (about 4 large cloves)
1 to 2 whole green chiles
2 teaspoon ground coriander
Kosher salt
8 3/4 ounces ready-made paneer, cut into cubes
1/2 to 1 teaspoon garam masala
6 tablespoons whole milk or 4 tablespoons double cream
1 to 2 teaspoon fresh lemon juice, or to taste

Add the ground coriander, and salt, to taste. Cook for another 30 seconds, then add the spinach and a splash of water, if necessary. The mixture should be loose, but not watery. Bring the mixture to a boil, and then simmer for 3 minutes.

Add the paneer cubes, garam masala, and milk to the pan. Stir the mixture, and cook for a few minutes, or until the spinach is nice and creamy. Stir in the lemon juice, to taste. Transfer the mixture to a warmed dish and serve with rice pilaf or naan bread.

More spinach from our family and friends, and don't forget to follow the convo on twitter at #fallfood.

Blanch the spinach in boiling water for 3 minutes, or until wilted. Drain the spinach into a colander and run cold water over it until cool. In a food processor or blender, blend to a smooth paste, and set aside.

Heat the oil in a large nonstick pan. Add the cumin and fry for about 30 seconds, or until fragrant, then add the onion and fry over a low heat for about 6 minutes, or until the onions are soft. Add the ginger, garlic, and chiles, and cook for another minute.

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