Garam masala, coriander, ginger, and garlic flavor this creamy, spinach-based saag dish with seared pieces of paneer cheese. The recipe can be adjusted to be served with chicken, if desired.
I was introduced to Indian cuisine a few years after I had left home. It was during a college road trip: cars brimming with bodies, the trunk packed with an assortment of duffel bags as none of us even owned proper luggage at that point nor had the desire to use it.
There was a drive across the flat, Midwestern expanse that surrounds the Twin Cities as we headed for a bigger city and better adventures that would surely be had if we could only reach them. The windows were rolled down, letting the current of air carry us forward, whipping hair in our eyes leaving us blind but for our desire to leave behind what we knew.
We ended up in Chicago, two carfuls of shorts-clad legs, our heads precariously balancing on top, full from the weight of the world our coursework was trying to cram into them. We explored the shoreline of Lake Michigan, the wicked wind slapping our faces raw, and then we headed down Devon Avenue towards Little India.
Not even a block in, the smells started to overwhelm our nose. Coriander and cumin, cardamom and cinnamon, the sharp tang of garlic, their individual scents melding together into something warm and round wafting down the street, causing your stomach to rumble in anticipation.
The menu gave no description, just foreign words on yellowing cardstock, but bowls of basmati rice and white porcelain dishes filled with brightly colored sauces holding chunks of meat and paneer started to arrive, as well as a basket of fresh naan, gleaming from a healthy brush of ghee across the top.
In an instant, what was unfamiliar became comforting.
Indian food has a distinct aroma, the mixing of toasted spices that knocks you over on impact. These days I just need to open my windows to have my neighbor’s cooking invade the house. Warm, comforting dishes and tandoor-seared meats served with soft breads of naan and chapati have become my go-to dishes for late family meals, and saag, with its springtime greens cooked down has become a favorite to serve on the patio when the chill is still present in the spring air, mimicking the shores of Lake Michigan.
- This dish can be made with chicken or another meat. Simply replace the paneer cheese with 1″ chunks of chicken, sear, and then add back into the spinach along with the water and cook through.
- It is not necessary to serve this with both rice and roti, but oven-baked naan or chapati are both commonly served. I made chapati this time, which I’ll be sharing later this week.
- I had the recipe call for ghee or coconut oil, but you could also use a vegetable oil. Making your own ghee is pretty easy, though, if you’re so inclined.
5 tablespoons ghee or coconut oil
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1/4 teaspoon – 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper (adjust amount to personal heat preference)
10 ounces paneer, cut into 1″ cubes
1 onion, diced
1 2″ knob ginger, minced
3 cloves garlic
1 serrano chile, minced (can substitute a jalapeño)
4 whole black peppercorns
3 green cardamom pods
2 whole cloves
2 teaspoons garam masala
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cumin
2 tomatoes, diced
1/4 cup Greek-style yogurt
1 tablespoon honey
Rinse the spinach and remove any touch stems, but do not dry. Add the spinach to a large sauté pan and cook over medium heat just until wilted. Remove from the pan and set aside. Add in 3 tablespoons of the ghee or oil. In a bowl, combine turmeric and cayenne. Toss the paneer cubes in the mixture and then add to the pan.
Cook the paneer, stirring after one minute to flip the pieces and allow them to brown on the opposite side. Remove them from the pan and set aside.
Add the remaining ghee/oil to the pan along with the onion, ginger, garlic, chile, peppercorns, cardamom pods, and cloves. Cook for 10-15 minutes, until the onions start to caramelize slightly, adding a tablespoon of water if the mixture starts to dry out. Mix in the garam masala, cumin, coriander and continue to cook, 3-5 minutes.
While the spices and aromatics are cooking, chop the wilted spinach or puree it in a food processor or blender. Add the spinach and the tomato to pan with the onion and spices. Add 1/2 cup water to the pan and cook for 5 minutes, until the water has cooked into the dish.
Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the yogurt, honey, and the paneer pieces. Return the pan to the heat and cook until heated through. Salt to taste and serve.
Makes 4-5 servings.