It’s been a spinach-ful week in our household. When you’re cooking for two, finishing one of the massive 2.5 lb bags of fresh spinach from Costco before it starts to turn limp and slimy can take a concerted effort. There was the delightful spinach with pine nuts and raisins last weekend. Then there was last night’s somewhat less successful lentil salad served on a bed of fresh spinach. And finally, to finish off the bag, I tried Deborah Madison’s take on saag paneer from the ridiculously titled This Can’t Be Tofu! Saag (or palak) paneer must be one of the most popular dishes at Indian restaurants, at least among the relatively unadventurous, like me.
I won’t profess to know the difference between saag paneer and palak paneer- I’ve always used the names interchangably and thought that the difference in terms was a simply a regional thing. Others have suggested that saag paneer always features spinach (as saag means spinach), whereas palak paneer can have other or mixed greens. Can anyone resolve this question definitively? In any case, a standard paneer (which actually means cottage, apparently) centers around small cubes of a sort of condensed cottage cheese (which is actually fairly easy to make if you like the idea of making your own cheese). Madison’s version replaces the paneer with small cubes of tofu with good results.
This dish may not satisfy die-hard purists- its spice combination was great and the texture was nice, but it wasn’t quite the same as if I’d gone out to an Indian restaurant. And Dylan professed that though he liked it, he preferred it with paneer. Nonetheless, this is a good alternative that is much lighter on butter and oil than restaurant fare, and frankly, I was amazed at how well it turned out, given that it was my maiden attempt at Indian food. Spicy, flavorful, and easy to make, I’d definitely make it again with tofu or homemade paneer and am looking forward to the leftovers tomorrow.
As a final note, I asked Dylan to spruce up the presentation before I took a picture, figuring that a pile of green mush atop a bed of rice wasn’t the most aesthetically pleasing. Normally an elegant plater, he grabbed a bottle of hot chili sauce and started attacking his bowl (pictured in back, as he insisted that it be included in the post). As he became ever more creative with his design, I couldn’t help but wonder whether the key to getting children to eat foods like spinach might be to let them loose with edible “paints” like this…just a thought.
Spinach and tofu paneer (serve 3-4)
1 carton firm or soft tofu (I used firm)
1 large bunch spinach, stems discarded, leaves well washed
1 jalapeno chile, seeded and coarsely chopped
1 serrano chile, coarsely chopped (lacking a serrano, I used 2 jalapenos and left a few seeds in)
1-inch knob ginger, peeled and diced
3 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
1 cup diced onion
2 tbsp ghee, butter, or vegetable oil
1 1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/8 tsp plus pinch nutmeg
1/8 tsp cayenne pepper
1/2 cup half-and-half
1/3 cup yogurt
1. Dice the tofu into pieces about the size of a sugar cube or a little smaller. Bring 6 cups water to boil, add 1 tsp salt and lower the heat to a simmer. Add the tofu, turn off the heat, and leave for 4-5 minutes. Pour into a colander to drain. (If you’ve used soft tofu, remove it with a slotted spoon.) Set aside.
2. Steam the spinach until wilted, then remove it to a cutting board and chop. When cool enough to handle, squeeze out the excess water.
3. Put the chiles, ginger, garlic, and onion in a food processor, and process until finely chopped. Heat the ghee or butter in a nonstick skillet, add the onion mixture and cook over medium heat, stirring frequently for 5 minutes.
4. Add 1 tsp salt, the cumin, nutmeg, cayenne, and 1 cup water. Simmer for 5 minutes, then return the mixture to the food processor, add the spinach, and puree.
5. Return the mixture to the skillet, add the half-and-half and the tofu and simmer for about 5 minutes. Turn off the heat and stir in the yogurt. Serve over rice (I used jasmine).