This recipe is a veritable hodgepodge of different “authentic” recipes and inspired both by the cornucopia of greens hanging around my fridge as well as a previous issue of Cook’s Illustrated I found under the cushion of my favorite armchair. The CI version of this recipe is a good starting point, but unavailable to anyone without a subscription, and personally I think their recipe cuts too many corners. I also borrowed heavily from Anne Mendelson’s excellent publication Milk, which is part anthropological culinary journal and part cookbook. She has excellent sections on making ghee, paneer, and saag paneer, though I find some of her steps unnecessarily arduous. This recipe is a nice in-between with further notes for simplifying certain areas if you’re short on time or motivation. Though, I must say the extra steps are worth it if you’re willing. I served this to my husband last night and he proclaimed it the most delicious thing I’d ever made, even going so far as to rank it tastier than the saag panner at Udipi Cafe in Columbus, the Southern Indian Restaurant we hold so dear it’s where we had our wedding dinner.
A note on Greens
I used the remnants of the gigantic container of baby spinach that had started to wilt in my crisper as well as a large chunk of beet greens and collards from last week’s CSA. The brilliance of this recipe is that soggy greens works great since we’re wilting and cooking them down. As long as they’re not slimy, they’re good to go. You can also use mustard, chard, and turnip greens in the mix as well.
Saag Paneer with Assorted Greens and Fresh Cheese
For the cheese:
3 quarts whole milk (NOT UHT pasteurized)
1/3 c lemon juice OR 3 cups buttermilk
1 tablespoon salt
3 tbs. ghee or canola oil for frying (optional)
For the Greens/Sauce
1-2 lb. mixed greens, tough stems removed (see note)
1/4 cup or so of ghee or canola oil
1 tsp mustard seed (ground is fine, also)
1 tsp cumin seed (ground is fine, also)
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp paprika
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 onion, chopped fine
4 garlic cloves
2 tbs fresh ginger
1 jalapeno chile, stem and seeds removed, minced
1 medium tomato, diced with juices
OR 1 can (14 1/2 ounce) diced tomatoes
1/2 cup cashews chopped or ground (optional)
1/2 cup plain greek style yogurt
1/2 cup heavy cream (optional)
To Make the Cheese
Making paneer is rather a simple, but but laborious task. If you don’t have the extra time to make the panir yourself, you can substitute store-bought paneer or even feta cheese, simply buy in a block and cut into cubes. I even have a sneaking suspicion you could fry the feta as you would paneer.
You will need a large pot for heating the milk, a large strainer to scoop out the curds, another vessel (such as a colander) and cheesecloth or muslin for extended straining. I also use two large, flat-bottomed plates for pressing the paneer.
- Pour the milk into a large heavy-bottomed saucepan and bring to boil over high heat, stirring reasonably often to make sure it doesn’t stick to the bottom or sides.
- When the milk comes to the boil, remove from heat and add in the lemon juice (or buttermilk) gently. Cloudy white curds should separate immediately from the clear, greenish-yellow whey. If this doesn’t happen, add a few more spritzes of lemon to help it along. If using buttermilk, keep on heat until the separation occurs.
- Let stand for 8-10 minutes.
- Line a strainer with tight-woven cheesecloth or other clean cotton cloth, set over a deep bowl (I secure my cheesecloth with a rubber band around the colander), and use the strainer to scoop out the large curds into the colander.
- Gently pour the remaining whey and curds into the colander and let strain for a few minutes.
- Tie the corners of the cloth into a bag, rinse briefly under cold running water to wash out some of the lemon taste, then squeeze the excess water out of the bag gently with your hands.
- Flatten the bag into a rough disc and place on top of a turned over plate. Top with the bottom of another plate (so the bag is sandwiched between two plate bottoms) and place a very heavy pot on top (I just use my original cooking vessel). Let strain for 1-2 hours, periodically draining off any overflow (I swaddle the bottom plate in a clean kitchen towel, and occasionally tip the whole set-up somewhat until the whey dribbles off into the towel).
- Remove from cloth and, if not using immediately, store tightly covered in the fridge for up to 3 days. Homemade paneer is highly perishable.
- Cut the disc into rough 1-inch cubes. You can use the paneer like this, but it will take on more flavor and hold up better in the spinach sauce if you fry it until browned.
- Heat the ghee or oil in a non-stick skillet (I used my well-seasoned iron skillet) over medium heat until the ghee/oil is shimmering hot. Add cheese cubes and give an initial shake so the cubes don’t stick. Let sit undisturbed for a minute or two until brown on that side. Flip the cubes over. Repeat until all the sides are browned. Remove from skillet and let rest until you need them. (You can also do this ahead of time and store tightly sealed in the fridge).
For the Sauce
- Rinse your greens well to remove any grit but don’t dry. If you don’t have a food processor or choose not to puree your greens, chop them well before the next step.
- Place wet greens in large, heavy-bottomed. heavy lidded sauce pan on medium high heat and cook, tightly covered over high heat until the leaves are wilted (2-5 minutes). They will decrease significantly in bulk, and you might need to stir them around a few times to make sure the greens wilt evenly.
- If pureeing, take for a spin in your food processor until roughly chopped and set aside. Wipe out the pan.
- Mince garlic, ginger, and jalapeno until they form a pace (feel free to run through the food processor).
- If using whole cumin and mustard seed: Heat 3-5 tbs of ghee or oil over medium heat until shimmering and add mustard and cumin seeds. When seeds start to pop, decrease heat to medium-low and proceed to next step. If using ground spices, you can add all the spices together to pan in step 8.
- Heat 3-5 tbs of ghee or oil in the same pot over medium-low heat until warm and add garlic/ginger/jalapeno paste, sauteing until fragrant (1-2 minutes).
- Add the onion and saute until translucent (roughly 10 minutes).
- Add the ground cashews and remaining dried spices and saute until the spices give off a pungent aroma (this is called blooming the spices, and is an integral part of Indian cooking). The nuts will stick to the pan, but just keep stirring, adding a few more tbs of ghee/oil as needed.
- Add tomato and stir (the acids should clear the bits of nut stuck to the bottom). Let simmer down for 5-10 minutes.
- Add greens and let the entire mixture come together for another 10-15 minutes until it thickens into a dense, fragrant sauce. The fat will begin to separate at this point.
- Mix together the yogurt and cream in a medium sized bowl. Temper 1 cup of the hot spinach sauce into the yogurt/cream mixture and stir through. Add the now-tempered yogurt/cream into the pot of sauce and stir to incorporate. Add the paneer and stir until warmed through.
- Serve atop steamed basmati rice and salt to taste.