Miss Ginsu: About/Bio


Life Gives You Spinach? Make Palek Paneer.

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)"

Palek paneer looming in my bowl

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.)

Labels: , , , ,


Varied Culinary Magic

Patel's Market

Patel's Market

Karela Melon

Montréal seemed so full of promise. Look! (said we) cheap tickets! We'll fly for the New Year's holiday! There will be fun! There will be bistros! There will be cafés! They will love the food just as much as we do!

Alas... in late December all the cute places in Montréal close up and goes south for the holidays. Gone to Martinique. Gone to Florida. Gone to Guadeloupe. Who could blame them? Shards of frozen water fell from the sky, cutting wee wounds into the dry, flaking skin of our wind-burnt cheeks.

We spent bitterly chilly days pressing irritated noses into the cold windowpanes of shuttered restaurants while we wandered in a hopeless search for flavorful food. At last resort there were greasy diners and Canadian restaurant chains. These were, sadly, no better than their American counterparts. Our disappointment grew more and more humorous until we were overtaken by fits of giggles.

On the brighter side, our B&B was clean and friendly (thank you, Geraldine!) and the city was inexpensive (hooray for favorable exchange rates!). We found a couple of open bookstores and saw a vast array of fantastically weird beetles, spiders, termites, scorpions, butterflies and bees at the Insectarium. This stop turned out to be my personal highlight. Montréal gives great bug.

And the beer and cheese... also good. But one cannot live on beer and cheese, books and bugs.

Abandoning the quest for freshness and flavor, we pleaded for a smidgeon of savory spice from the chipper Scot who served us at the Bombay Palace on St. Catherine St.

Our man recommended a round of crisp Cheetah beer to wash down a basket of tandoor-fresh naan, a delightfully tender lamb vindaloo and a homey eggplant masala. We left our anxious bellies in his hands. I should note that Indian restaurants present a particularly nerve-wracking risk for me. I love subcontinental cuisine so much, and having cooked in an Indian-style restaurant, I'm particularly aware of how good every dish can and should be. The food was, thankfully, just fine.

The meal warmed our bones (momentarily) and made me hunger for a journey out to Patel Brothers back in Flushing, Queens.

Serving up spice since 1974, Patel is apparently a national chain. The Flushing shop contains aisles and aisles of spices, rices, peppers, pots, pans, sweets and snacks, and (as promised on their website) the spacious store provides a charming "range of authentic Indian groceries and bring joy and celebration of the taste of motherland India right at your doorstep. To bring those warm indian memories we have a wide range of Spices, Pickles, Chutnes, Pules, Lentils, Basmati Rice, to name a few. Helping you create the countries varied culinary magic right in your home."

Mmm... warm Indian memories.

And what's to be done with all the treasures you plum from Patel? I'll reproduce a recipe I recently posted in the comments field on I(heart)bacon.

Here's a simplified version of a bhel puri used as an app. The trick with Indian cooking (and with most cooking for that matter) is this: you have to taste it to get the seasoning right. It's supposed to be a tasty balance of tangy, sweet, spicy and salty. Brands vary in seasoning, so your tamarind chutney may be sweeter than mine. It's difficult, therefore, to recommend an exact quantity.

Pick up the sev (noodley things), puffed rice, tamarind chutney and mint chutney at an Indian food shop, online or at an enlightened supermarket.

(I like the Patak's brand for store-bought chutneys and pickles. Their lime pickle is fantabulous.)

Bhel Puri (makes approx 24-30 apps, served in cucumber cups*)

1 small onion, minced
2 green chilies (anaheims work well), deseeded and minced
1/2 cup hothouse cucumber (diced)
1/2 cup tart apple or mango (diced)
1/2 cup cilantro leaves, chiffonade or chop finely
1/2 cup chopped mint leaves, chiffonade or chop finely
juice of 1 lime
1 tsp chili powder
1 tsp chaat masala
tamarind chutney (about 1.5 Tbsp or to taste)
mint chutney (about 1.5 Tbsp or to taste)
salt/sugar/cayenne pepper (to taste)
1/2 cup puffed rice (to mix in at the very last moment before serving)
Sev (sprinkle on top for garnish)

1. In a bowl, mix all the ingredients together except rice and sev.

2. Taste for balance and adjust flavor with chutneys and seasonings.

3. Add puffed rice just before serving (otherwise, it'll get soggy).

4. Scoop by teaspoon into cucumber cups*. Sprinkle with sev.

5. Serve immediately with a hoppy ale.

*Slice hothouse cucumbers into 3/4" rounds. Scoop out a little cup in the middle of each slice with a teaspoon or melon-baller.

Patel Brothers
42-92 Main St
Flushing, NY 11355

Labels: , , , , ,