Today’s recipe: how to cook saag paneer
The Indian restaurant classic spinach-and-curd-cheese side dish gets the Felicity Cloake treatment.
Saag paneer has long been my go-to side dish in Indian restaurants, but having managed to recreate the magic of these deliciously oily, garlicky greens dotted with plump pillows of fresh curd cheese, these days I increasingly find myself eating it at home with nothing more than a warm flatbread for company. (Note: to make this vegan, use extra-firm tofu instead of the paneer.)
Prep 15 min, plus draining time
Cook 10 min
Serves 4 as a side
For the paneer
1.1 litres whole milk
1 tbsp lemon juice
¼ tsp fine salt
For the dish
500g fresh spinach, well washed, or 5 pucks frozen whole-leaf spinach, defrosted (or other greens – see step 9)
1 small onion
4 fat garlic cloves
4cm piece fresh ginger
1 small fresh green chilli
2 tbsp ghee
½ tsp salt
1 tsp garam masala
½ tsp turmeric
1. Start on the DIY cheese (or buy some in)
If you’d rather not make the paneer yourself, use 150g shop-bought cheese instead. If you do, however, you’ll need to work an hour or so ahead.
Put the milk in a saucepan and heat, stirring occasionally, until it’s foaming but not boiling (93C is ideal, according to Morgan McGlynn’s book, The Modern Cheesemaker). Take off the heat and stir in the lemon juice.
2. Finish the paneer
Once the milk has completely separated into solid curds and liquid whey – about 15-20 minutes – pour it into a muslin- lined sieve set over a bowl (the whey that collects in the bowl can be drunk or used in baking).
Squeeze dry the curds in the sieve, mix in the salt, then form into a rough square. Wrap this up in the muslin, weigh it down with a plate topped with a tin or two, and leave for an hour to drain.
3. If you’re using fresh spinach…
Frozen whole-leaf spinach is fine here, if you prefer; just defrost and squeeze it completely dry before roughly chopping it and continuing from step 5 – there’s no need to blanch it. But if you’re using fresh spinach – big, adult leaves, well washed, would be my preference – bring a big pan of well-salted water to a boil and fill a sink or bowl with iced water.
4. Blanch, ice and dry
Blanch the fresh spinach for 10 seconds, then drain and drop into the iced water to cool – this will help it keep its colour. Squeeze out vigorously in clean tea towels, then finely chop any large stalks and roughly chop the leaves. Give it a last squeeze to ensure it’s as dry as possible before you start cooking the saag paneer.
5. Get everything ready to go
Cut the paneer into rough cubes (the homemade sort will always be softer than the commercial kind).
Peel and finely slice the onion and garlic. Peel and grate the ginger, and deseed and finely slice the chilli. Put these and all the other ingredients within easy reach of the hob, because you’ll have to work quickly once you start cooking.
6. Start cooking
Heat the ghee in a large, heavy-based frying pan over a medium-high heat. Fry the paneer, in batches, if necessary, until golden and crusted on all sides – if it’s homemade, be careful when turning it, because it will be very fragile.
With a slotted spoon, ideally, scoop out the cubes and put them on a plate lined with kitchen paper to drain, leaving as much ghee behind in the pan as possible, then season with a little salt.
7. Fry the onion, garlic and spices
Put the onion, garlic, ginger and chilli in the hot pan, along with the dry spices and remaining salt, and fry, stirring energetically, until they are soft, but not brown – turn down the heat if anything looks like it’s threatening to burn, and add a little more ghee, if necessary.
8. Finishing touches
Tip the chopped, dried spinach into the pan and stir-fry until it’s well mixed in with the other ingredients, then return the paneer to the pan and gently heat through – don’t stir too much at this stage or the cheese may break up. Taste and adjust the seasoning, if necessary, and serve at once with your flatbread of choice or rice.
Strictly speaking, the name of this dish should be palak paneer – I’ve used the more familiar name found on restaurant menus, but these often contain a mix of leafy vegetables, so feel free to play around with what you have. Just make sure it’s thoroughly wilted, roughly chopped and completely dry before adding it to the pan in step 8.