I was delighted to learn earlier this year (from a Brain Pickings post about The Half-Life of Facts) that spinach does not deserve the reputation as a strength-enhancing superfood that Popeye gave it. Apparently, the belief that spinach contains a boatload of iron relative to other greens stems from a misplaced decimal in a 19th-century chemist’s notes about the nutritional content of vegetables. The reason for my delight is that I’ve never been a fan of spinach. Raw, it tastes simultaneously bland and metallic. Cooked, it’s bland, metallic, and almost always excruciatingly watery, with nothing approaching the body and earthy flavor of kale or collard greens.
One traditional American spinach dish, creamed spinach, tackles the wateriness problem head-on by cooking the dickens out of the spinach and then adding cream or béchamel sauce to thicken it up. Unfortunately, creamed spinach is a total snoozefest. Fortunately, North Indian cuisine has a far superior version of creamed spinach, enlivened with chilies, cumin, and ginger: palak paneer.
Palak means spinach; paneer is a fresh cheese with a firm, almost rubbery texture. (Sometimes Indian restaurants will call this dish saag paneer; saag is an umbrella term for leafy greens.) You can buy paneer at Indian groceries and other specialty markets, but it’s easy and fun to make at home: All you have to do is bring milk to a boil and add diluted lemon juice. The milk will immediately separate into scrambled-egg-like curds and watery whey. After straining and then pressing the curds for a few hours, you’ll have a solid, sliceable block of homemade cheese. You can cube paneer at this point and stir it into your spinach, but it’ll be firmer and less likely to crumble if you first brown the cubes in the oven.
As for that spinach: Frozen is, frankly, way easier to use in this dish than fresh. Plus, because most of the flavor of palak paneer derives from spices, you’re not sacrificing much flavor by going the frozen route. To prepare frozen spinach for palak paneer, just to thaw it and then squeeze its water out. (Put it in a strainer and press down on it, or wrap it in cheesecloth—which you’ll have on hand already if you’re making paneer from scratch—and wring it out.) If you prefer to use fresh spinach, steam or boil it for a minute or two, cool it, and then squeeze it dry. The squeezing is essential: A medium-sized pile of spinach contains, so far as I can tell, buckets and buckets of water, so merely draining it in a colander or strainer isn’t good enough—you have to take a cue from Salt-n-Pepa and push it real good.
Most of the additional ingredients in palak paneer are relatively easy to find, with the possible exceptions of garam masala (substitute generic curry powder if you must) and ghee, which is clarified butter. You can make ghee yourself without much trouble, or you can substitute butter—but if you use unclarified butter, keep an eye on it while you’re sautéing the cumin seeds. Regular butter burns at much lower temperatures than ghee.
Admittedly, this recipe is dairy city, calling not only for ghee and paneer but also for cream and yogurt. Vegans and other lactose avoiders can substitute peanut or canola oil for the ghee, use 8 to 12 ounces of tofu instead of making paneer (freeze it if you have time, or at least press it), and omit the yogurt and cream.
Yield: About 4 servings
Time: 3½ to 4 hours, mostly unattended
6 cups whole milk
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
3 tablespoons ghee or butter
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
6 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
4 medium fresh jalapeños, seeded if desired and minced
1 tablespoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon paprika
¼ teaspoon ground turmeric
One 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes
1 pound frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
1 teaspoon ground garam masala
⅛ teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
¼ cup whole-milk yogurt
¼ cup heavy cream
Cooked basmati rice for serving (optional)
1. Put the milk in a medium pot over medium-high heat. While it’s heating, combine the lemon juice with ¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons warm water. When the milk comes to a boil, add the lemon juice mixture; the milk should immediately separate into curds and whey. Add a pinch of salt and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Line a strainer with a few layers of cheesecloth and put it in the sink; pour the milk mixture into the strainer to strain out the whey. Rinse the curds with cool water, then twist the edges of the cheesecloth around the cheese and squeeze out any remaining liquid. Transfer the cheese bundle to a plate lined with paper towels, weigh it down with a cast-iron skillet or another heavy object, and let rest for at least 3 hours.
2. Put 2 tablespoons of the ghee in a medium pot over medium heat. When it melts, add the cumin seeds and cook, shaking the pan occasionally, until fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the onion, garlic, and ginger and season with salt. Cook, stirring frequently, until the onions soften, 8 to 10 minutes. Add the jalapeños, coriander, paprika, and turmeric, and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the tomatoes and cook, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes. Add the spinach and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the spinach is tender, about another 10 minutes.
3. Meanwhile, heat the oven to 400°F. Unwrap the paneer and cut it into ¾-inch cubes. Melt the remaining 1 tablespoon ghee in an 8- or 9-inch square pan in the oven. Add the cubed paneer; toss gently to coat the paneer in the ghee and and season with salt. Roast, turning the cubes once or twice, until golden brown, about 15 minutes.
4. Stir the garam masala and cayenne pepper into the spinach mixture and cook for 2 minutes, then turn off the heat. Add the yogurt and cream to the spinach mixture and partially purée with an immersion blender. Stir in the roasted paneer. Taste and adjust the seasoning, then serve hot over basmati rice, if desired. (Store leftover palak paneer in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to a week.)