My husband’s maternal grandparents raised their family in India. Chris’ grandfather ran an international boarding school in his capacity as a United Methodist Minister. Chris’ mother and all of his aunts and uncles grew up playing in the foothills of the Himalayas and attending the Woodstock School. It is easy to see how this experience continues to inform Chris’ family. They have dedicated themselves to fields of work and activism that benefit humanity, nature and a harmonious relationship between them. They are educators, anti-nuclear activists, advocates for financial equality in the third world and scientists who protect whales. At home, they are hardworking, resourceful and skilled. They build houses, grow gardens, raise livestock and frown on wastefulness. There is a strong streak of the adventurer and traveller as well. I could not even begin to list all of the places that they have collectively travelled. All and all they are a pretty admirable bunch of people.
A day or two after Christmas, usually boxing day, those of them who now live in Tennessee gather to share an Indian meal. This year I had the pleasure of cooking it (with a great deal of help from my mother, who came to spend Christmas with us). We made Butter Chicken, Aloo Chat, a cauliflower dish that I was not totally pleased with and this Saag Paneer. The menu was rounded out by dishes brought by the rest of the family (delicious dal, basmati rice, raw fruit and vegetables, homemade bread, yogurt and Indian snacks). I love to cook Indian food, so I hope that I will get to cook the boxing day meal again!
I started with the Saag Paneer recipe from my favourite Indian cookbook, Classic Indian Vegetarian and Grain Cooking, by Julie Saini. The recipe suggested that you could use tofu in place of paneer. With all of the holiday hub bub, I did not see us having time to track down a paneer source in Maryville, Tennessee, or making it from scratch (although I do aspire to learn how to make paneer). Also, my own sweet mama cannot eat dairy, so it was nice to have a vegan version of the dish that she could eat. I changed the proportions of the original recipe quite a bit. In addition to the generation that had grown up in India, there were going to be plenty of young American born and bred attendees at the dinner and I didn’t want them skipping the green vegetable because it was too spicy! Also, I omitted the water because I prefer saag paneer to be quite thick. If you like yours thinner, you can just add a bit of water for the final simmering. Julie Saini’s recipe features chunks of sweet red pepper for color, texture and sweetness. I did not include sweet red peppers in my boxing day Saag Paneer because they are out of season in December. However, I have tried adding them in the past and they are a quirky and delicious addition!
One of the satisfying things about this recipe is that you start by making a puree of barely wilted spinach and raw green bell pepper. The result is silky in texture, and possesses a bright green colour that exudes health. If I were the sort of person who drank green smoothies, I would be tempted to gobble it up before adding the spices. I know that I should be drinking bright green smoothies, but I just can’t make myself do it. Eating the smoothy once it has been simmered gently with sautéed onions, fresh ginger, chili peppers, turmeric and garam masala is as close as I am willing to get to the green smoothy experience.
Once you add all of the seasoning, even the most green vegetable phobic person would have to admit that this dish is delicious AND it will get even better if you let it sit in the fridge for a day, or two, or three. The flavours just continue to improve. Saag is an excellent dish to freeze in large quantities for this reason.
We had about 25 people at the dinner so I multiplied the recipe a few times, but the recipe below serves four, or provides ever improving lunches for about a week.
- 4 cups cooked spinach (3 bunches of raw spinach, about 30 oz total)
- 1 sweet green bell pepper, seeded and roughly chopped
- 8-10 Tablespoons mild oil
- 1 and 1/2 cups chopped onion
- 2 Tablespoons grated fresh ginger
- 2 hot green chilies with their seeds, minced
- 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
- 1 teaspoon salt (more to taste)
- 2 teaspoons garam masala (for a garam masala recipe click here)
- 10-14 oz tofu
- 5 Tablespoons flour for dusting (I use 2 and 1/2 tablespoons brown rice flour and 2 and 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch for a gluten-free dredge)
- Submerge the spinach in a large tub or sink of cold water and shake it around to get all of the sand off. Let it sit in the water for about three minutes, or long enough that all of the dirt settles. Pull the spinach out, taking care not to agitate the water. Drop the damp spinach into a very large pot and heat it, covered, over medium high flame until the spinach is bright green and wilted. This only takes a few minutes.
- In a blender or food processor, process the cooked spinach and raw sweet green pepper until smooth. You can add some of the cooking water from the pot if needed.
- Heat 4 tablespoons of oil in a large pot. You can use the same pot that you steamed the spinach in, but be sure to dry it out before adding the oil. Fry the onions for about 20 minutes, or until browned. Add the ginger and fry for two more minutes. Add the turmeric and green chilies and give them a stir. Add the spinach puree and the salt. Bring it to a boil and simmer for a few minutes. Stir in the garam masala. I like to let the saag cool at this point and refrigerate it for a few days (or freeze it for even longer). The flavours improve with a bit of time.
- On the day that you want to serve the saag, cut the tofu into 1/2″ cubes. Spread them out in a single layer on towels. Cover them with more towels and place weighted baking sheets on top of that to help squeeze the liquid out.
- Dredge the dried tofu in flour (or rice flour and cornstarch mixture).
- Heat 4 Tablespoons oil in a large skillet and fry the tofu in a single layer until it is golden on all sides. As the tofu finishes remove them from the pan and drain them on a towel. Remove the oil from the heat, but reserve it.
- Reheat the saag. If the oil that fried the tofu in still tastes okay, add two tablespoons of it to the saag. If it tastes burnt, add 2 Tablespoons of fresh oil instead. The oil helps to mellow the flavours.
- Carefully fold in the fried tofu and serve.
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