Spotting a fine sale on washed spinach last week, my thoughts turned to darkness... as in the rich green darkness one finds in a pot of long-simmered spinach.
"Great Scott!" I cried, "It's a sign from the food gods! I will make palek paneer!" (I'm sure this sort of thing happens to everyone, no?)
I realize that for those who haven't spent a lot of time staring at Indian take-out menus, palek paneer might sound like a lot of mumbo-jumbo. For zealots (myself included) it translates more like this: "really tasty spiced and slow-cooked spinach (palek) with cubes of very mild, creamy white cheese (paneer)"
The real problem with palek paneer is the spinach. If you've ever cooked creamed spinach, you know that a big pile of it wilts down to practically nothing. For this dish to be worth the effort, you need a bushel of spinach.
But one large produce sale and three bulky 10oz bags of spinach later, the fridge was stuffed with greenery and I was ready to get my simmer on.
First, the Palek
If you have a spice grinder (or a coffee grinder that can be put into service as a spice grinder), it's really best to use whole spices for Indian dishes. They're more flavorful, and we're looking for flavor when we add spice to a dish.
That said, if you can't grind your spices, go with pre-ground, but keep in mind that you might need to use extra spice to flavor the dish properly.
So-Simple Palek Paneer (Feeds six, if served with rice)
1 Tbsp cumin seed
1 Tbsp coriander seed
1 tsp fennel or caraway seed
2 whole cloves
1 tsp fenugreek seed
Grind in a clean coffee grinder and combine with:
1/2 tsp ground turmeric
1/2 tsp ground cayenne or Aleppo pepper (if you like it spicy)
Heat in a heavy bottomed stock pot or skillet:
1-2 Tbsp vegetable oil (or ghee, if you prefer)
Add the spice blend to the pan and allow it to heat for 30 seconds.
Add to the pan:
2 small onions, diced (about 1 cup)
1 jalapeno pepper, halved and sliced thin
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 inch fresh ginger, peeled and grated (or minced)
1 tsp salt
Saute until onions are translucent, and add to the pan:
3-4 medium tomatoes, chopped (or 1 28oz can diced tomatoes)
Bring the mixture to a simmer and add (in several batches, if the spinach is fresh)
30 oz fresh spinach (washed and chopped) OR 2 8oz boxes frozen spinach
Simmer mixture, covered, for 1 to 1 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally. While this cooks down, make the paneer. (See paneer how-to, below.)
Uncover pot and season the mixture to taste.
At this point, you may wish to make your palek smooth by using an immersion blender (or cool off the mixture and blend it in a traditional blender.) I don't mind a little visible fiber, so I generally skip this step.
If the mixture seems too thin, simmer another 15-20 minutes to reduce to your desired thickness.
Before serving, gently fold paneer cubes into the palek. Heat 2-3 minutes more.
Serve with a basmati pilaf, assorted chutneys and naan or chapati, if desired.
Variations: Chickpea lovers (you know who you are) may wish to add a 14oz can (drained) while the spinach simmers, and those who aren't dairy-eaters can certainly substitute tofu cubes for the paneer — though they'll miss out on all the fun of making paneer, of course.
All About Paneer...
A coworker recently asked me about making paneer. It took about 15 seconds to explain the process. "And that's it?" was his incredulous response. Yup. That's it.
The fact is, paneer, like all farmer cheese, is embarrassingly simple to make. I say "embarrassingly" because once you make it yourself, you'll be mortified at the thought of ever having paid money for someone else to make your paneer. That's how easy it is.
Paneer-like farmer cheeses can be found wherever milk is found (as it turns out, people all over the world come to roughly similar conclusions when confronted with surplus milk) and considering how simple (and frankly, how fun) it is to make fresh cheeses, I'm a little surprised it's not a part of everyone's standard home-cooking routine.
I learned how to make paneer using coconut vinegar, but honestly, any tasty acid will work just fine.
I've made a video to demonstrate the process, but in case you're one of those rare people who enjoy reading, the instructions are written out below.
Warning: This is my first cooking video. It's hand-held and done without a prepared script, so it's a bit rough. I promise these will get better...
So then, you'll need:
1 quart of whole milk
the juice of two lemons
a triple-layered sheet of cheese cloth (or a clean, thin cotton towel)
Rest the towel or cheese cloth in a colander.
Heat the milk in a saucepan to hot, but not boiling (it will steam).
While stirring the milk, pour in the lemon juice. The mixture should clot as you stir. Drain the coagulated solids through the cloth in the colander. Gather the hot curd into a packet, and when it's cool enough to handle, press it into a block, squeezing out any excess liquid. Cool down your block of paneer and slice it into cubes for use in recipes. (You may wish to weigh it down beneath a cutting board to extract excess liquid and make the paneer more firm.)