Today my colleague gifted me a big bag of beautiful Swiss chard from her garden. Tonight, I used the chard to make a lovely Chard Saag Aloo. Saag Aloo is the less famous cousin of the popular Indian dish Saag Paneer (Saag = spinach & paneer = cubes of cheese). Aloo means potato, so Saag Aloo is spinach with potatoes. Chard Saag Aloo then uses chard instead of spinach.
I first fell in love with Saag Aloo when I lived in London about 15 years ago. A no-frills Indian cafe on Brick Lane served incredible spicy Saag Aloo alongside fragrant coconut biriyani. I began craving their Saag Aloo and made a beeline there whenever I found myself in that neighborhood, which was often.
Later when I lived in Nanjing, China, Saag Aloo was the Indian dish I cooked most often in that tiny kitchen. I regularly cooked it for my Chinese seminarian students as well, who were amazed at how flavorful the spinach became after slow cooking in spices, very different from quick Chinese stir-fries.
I’ve experimented with different greens over the years. Spinach is standard, but kale is too tough and dries out the sauce. Chard is a lovely middle point, providing pleasing mineral green flavor while also cooking down soft and tender.
Feel free to experiment with the quantities of spices. I’ve cooked this dish so many times that I just eyeball the amount of turmeric, coriander, etc. If you want it spicier, add a dried chili, if not, omit. One more note on spices: I used to add the spices whole and trust they would blend up in the blender with the rest of the onion and tomato. However, the blender isn’t strong enough to grind spices and I would end up with chunks of cloves & cardamom which created random bitter bites. Please take the extra step of grinding the spices first which creates smooth, uniform flavor.
Chard saag Aloo
3 waxy potatoes
2 tablespoons light oil
4-5 cloves garlic
2-3 inch knob of ginger
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
seeds from 4 cardamom pods
1 dried red chili (optional)
a few black peppercorns (optional)
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup tomato sauce or 1 heaping tablespoon tomato paste
2 large bunches Swiss chard
1 teaspoon garam masala
Peel the potatoes, and cut into long quarters or eighths. Place the potatoes in a small saucepan and cover with water. Add salt. Bring to a boil, then simmer with the lid tilted at a diagonal until the potatoes are tender. Drain.
Meanwhile, slice the onion. Roughly chop the garlic. Slice the ginger into a few planks. Heat the oil in a large skillet with tall sides. Cook the sliced onions until softened. Add the garlic and ginger and cook about 2 minutes. Combine the spices in a spice grinder (I used an old coffee grinder). Pour the ground spices over the onion mixture and turn off the heat. Let the spices warm up 1-2 minutes in the skillet.
Then pour the spiced onion mixture into a blender. Add the tomato sauce or tomato paste and about a half cup of water. Blend until pureed. This creates a masala paste. Pour the paste back into the skillet. Add another 1/4 cup of water to the blender and pulse to get the rest of the paste clinging to the sides of the blender. Add to the skillet.
Chop the chard. I stack the chard leaves on top of each other, roll them up tightly, then slice the roll thinly, which is called a chiffonade technique. Then I chop crosswise across the green ribbons a few times to get a rough chop. Add the chopped chard to the skillet.
By this time, the potatoes should be done. Drain the potatoes then add them to the skillet. Stir, turn on the heat to medium, and cover with a lid. When starting to bubble, lower the heat to very low and let simmer about 20 minutes.
At this point, I made a pot of rice with the rice cooker, and when the rice is finished, the Saag Aloo is finished simmering too. Turn off the heat, sprinkle over a teaspoon of garam masala, stir, then taste for salt. Adjust for balance.
Serve alongside other curries or a dal, or just with rice. Enjoy.