Saag paneer is an Indian dish consisting of a pool of soft spinach stew studded with cubes of firm paneer cheese. The spinach is “saag” and the cheese is “paneer.” This traditional dish is improved with the revolutionary addition of mustard greens, as well a thoughtful balance of spices. I made this mustard green saag paneer twice over the holidays because my family kept requesting it.
I am sometimes cautious about ordering saag paneer in restaurants because the flavor can be bland when prepared for timid American palates. However I was fortunate to discover this perfect and vibrant recipe in Raghavan Iyer’s cookbook 660 Curries, which is also the source of the fabulous and spicy version of muttar paneer that I shared over the summer. Not only is the spice blend here lovely, but Iyer’s insight to add mustard greens makes the dish more pungent and flavorful. This is a wonderfully enjoyable way to eat your greens.
For those of you unfamiliar with paneer, it’s a dense Indian cheese that holds its shape when folded into hot curries. It is often pan-fried before being added to curries (although many Indian restaurants cut corners by tossing in small cold cubes). You can find paneer in Indian groceries, and some Arab markets in my area carry it as well. When I visit Indian groceries, I often buy several packages of paneer, and store it in the freezer so that I always have it on hand. If you freeze yours, remember to thaw it before using. If you are unable to find paneer in your area, the greens in this dish are so delicious that you could easily enjoy it without the paneer. Alternatively, you could substitute the paneer for big chunks of steamed potato, which would create a delicious “saag aloo.”
MUSTARD GREEN SAAG PANEER
6-8 ounces fresh spinach leaves
1 large bunch mustard greens
1 teaspoon whole coriander seeds
1/4 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/4 teaspoon black peppercorns
cardamom seeds from 3 green cardamom pods
1 dried red chile
1 medium onion
6 medium-size garlic cloves
2-inches of ginger
2 tablespoons canola or olive oil
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 cup water
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1 1/2 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
14-18 ounces paneer cheese
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon garam masala
Soak the spinach leaves and mustard greens in a large bowl of cold water. Let them sit a few minutes to soak which will loosen any dirt clinging to the leaves, then pull out the leaves. Finely chop the spinach and mustard greens. One way to easily chop the large mustard green leaves is to stack about 5 large leaves on top of each other. Roll them up like a cigar, then thinly slice the roll. This technique of slicing a “cigar” of stacked and rolled leaves is called “chiffonade.” At this point, you can easily chop the leaves more finely. Repeat this stacking, rolling, slicing, and chopping process with the rest of the leaves.
Make the spice blend by combining the coriander seeds, cumin seeds, black peppercorns, cloves, cardamom seeds, and dried red chile in a coffee grinder or spice grinder. If you are using a coffee grinder, you will probably want to wipe the grinder before and after with a damp paper-towel.
Prepare the paneer by cutting it into inch-size cubes.
Pan-fry the paneer in a wide skillet with about 1/4 cup or less of oil. Rotate the cubes to fry on all sides until the color is honey-brown. This will take about 7-10 minutes. Let them drain on a paper-towel.
Slice the onion. Roughly chop the garlic cloves. Slice the 2-inch piece of ginger into long slices.
Heat the 2 tablespoons of oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add the onion, garlic, and ginger, and stir-fry until the onion is light brown, 8-10 minutes. Remove the skillet from the heat, and stir in the spice mixture you made in the grinder, plus the turmeric. The heat from the onion should be just right to lightly cook the spices without burning them.
Transfer the mixture to a blender or food processor. Add the tomato paste and 1/4 cup of the water. Puree to create a smooth paste. Return the paste to the skillet. Pour the remaining 3/4 cup water to the blender or food processor, and whir the blades to wash it out and capture the remaining paste. Add this to the skillet as well.
Place the skillet over medium heat. Pile handfuls of the greens into the skillet, cover it, and let the steam wilt them. Stir, and repeat with the remaining greens. Once they are all wilted, cover the skillet and cook, stirring occasionally, until the greens are broken down to a sauce-like consistency and are olive-green in color, 10-15 minutes.
Stir in the salt, garam masala, paneer cubes, and cream. Continue simmering the curry, covered, stirring occasionally, until the cheese and cream are warmed through, 5-8 minutes.