Friday, October 26, 2007

Saag Paneer

My favourite Indian dish, bar none, is saag paneer, also called palak paneer. It's cubes of Indian cheese in a spicy, fragrant, smooth and creamy spinach sauce. Even though you often see it on menus in Indian restaurants, I haven't had much luck locating recipes for it in cookbooks. Makes you wonder if it isn't one of those westernised dishes, that no true Indian housewife makes. But, after doing some research, I am convinced this is not the case.

Anyway, there is a recipe for it in The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking, which is where I got the recipe for the spicy potatoes I made. When I read in the recipe that sometimes other leafy greens - such as mustard, collard, fenugreek and beet greens - are mixed in with the spinach, I was determined to use up some of the beet greens that I was up to my ears in because of the CSA.

Every Indian housewife I've met always tells me that paneer is really easy to make at home. Armed with the very detailed instructions in the recipe, I decided to take the plunge and make my own paneer.
You start by heating some milk in a pot. Apparently, skim milk will make your paneer tough. Not surprising, really. I haven't bought milk for drinking in several months (I've never much liked drinking milk, and I've been using soy milk for my cereal and oatmeal), but for this I bought some organic whole milk.

Once the milk is boiling and foaming up, turn off the heat and immediately add a curdling agent before all the foam subsides. I used fresh lemon juice (strained, off course). Once your curdling agent has been added, stir in one direction very gently and watch the cheese curds form. Then, you cover the pot and let is sit for about 10 minutes.Next, you drain off the whey through several layers of cheesecloth (which I bought especially for this occasion). You can save it to use to curdle your next batch, but it's supposed to be "soured" whey, and I wasn't sure how much souring it required, and I didn't think I would be making paneer again that soon, so I just drained it away. Then, you rinse the cheese curds under a gentle stream of water to remove excess whey. I wrapped the soft curds up in the cheesecloth and placed a weight (here, a tupperware box full of water) on top to squeeze out excess liquid so that the curds would form a solid cheese.After an hour or so, I had my first block of paneer! I cut it into cubes and browned them in a nonstick frying pan. Then, I cooked the spinach sauce (the "saag" part), following the recipe but using all the beet greens I had instead of spinach.

The paneer was great, and it was pretty easy to make. The only thing was, I now had a huge sheet of dirty cheesecloth, and I wasn't sure what to do with it. I threw it into the wash, and then into the dryer. I'm not sure I can reuse the shrunken, crinkled mass that came out. I am told that you can also drain the cheese curds with a clean handkerchief. I think I'll try that next time.
But, in my hurry to use up all my beet greens, I used a much greater quantity than the recipe called for. Not only that, but beet greens give out a pinkish-red liquid. My saag paneer, although the paneer tasted and felt as it should, was rather bland, didn't had the velvety texture I was expecting, and was an interesting pinkish-orange colour from the mixing of the spices and the beet juice.

Well, having gotten one part right, I was determined to perfect the other part before I made any more paneer. I thought it would be a good idea to experiment with the recipe and use firm tofu until I had gotten the "saag" part right. That was quite a number off weeks ago.

This Tuesday happened to be the last week of the CSA, and I brought home a couple of bunches of spinach. Tonight, I decided to treat myself, having survived a gruelling week of exams. This time, I added some garlic (yes, the original recipe doesn't call for garlic, which I found a little strange), used spinach, added light cream and a smidgen of cream cheese (instead of heavy cream or cream cheese) because it was what I had in the fridge, and substituted tofu for paneer.

Success! The recipe could still use some tweaking, but not only was this batch much more flavourful (I actually doubled the quantity of spices), but it had the velvety texture that is so characteristic of the dish. I really think using spinach makes all the difference. The beet greens just don't cook down to the same silky smoothness. I guess that's why the recipe says spinach mixed with other greens. Or, I suppose, you could process or blend the sauce after it finishes cooking, before you add the paneer. I also think that the cream cheese helped to deepen the flavour and improve the texture, even though I only added less than one tablespoonful.

Now, I can try putting real paneer in. That may happen sooner than I'd thought. I'd expected to have a lot of leftovers, but my roommate and her friend (who came over to watch a movie) gave the "saag tofu" a thumbs-up, and there isn't much left. Then again, I have a whole list of recipes I've been wanting to try, so it may be a while until I come back to this one, since I have half-way mastered it.

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