Saag Paneer (Palak Paneer)
Saag paneer is one dish that is found in all the Indian restaurants in the USA (and probably other countries too!) is loved by everyone. It is the most famous Indian vegetarian curry, which comes only second to channa masala (choley). I have grown up eating and loving palak paneer. Palak paneer and Saag paneer are not exactly the same, there are subtle differences. Palak means spinach in Hindi. Palak paneer uses only spinach leaves for the gravy is not overloaded with cream. The richness in Palak paneer comes from butter. Saag paneer I believe is a version of palak paneer that has been adapted by the chefs in the USA to suit the local palate. Saag stands for green leafy vegetables in Hindi. Saag paneer in the US can be only spinach or a combination of greens like spinach, mustard greens, fenugreek leaves etc. The restaurant version if this dish is quite delicious and I absolutely love it…but sometime it is overly creamy and tastes too milky. The milky taste is something that I cannot really appreciate in savory curries.
So today’s recipe is my version of the very popular Saag Paneer. I have included a few twists of my own, which I think are brilliant What, I am serious! I do love my version of saag paneer more than any restaurant’s. This recipe is not too complicated to make, do try this at home with some homemade naans for an Indian feast at home. Indian food is notorious for being too complicated and greasy. First, its not complicated, you just need to have the right ingredients in your pantry. Don’t you go buy spices and herbs for Italian, Mexican or French cooking?? So why not go a little further and stock up on some Indian spices as well?? Did you know that Walmart has started selling Indian products, like basmati rice and spices?? But I must warn you they are very pricey. A trip to your local Indian grocer will save you a lot of money and will also introduce you to so many new things. And secondly, not all Indian food is greasy. Only the restaurant versions are way too oily. Indian home cooking uses just as much grease as a few Tbsp of butter and some cream for a rich curry.
In today’s recipe, I have substituted cream cheese for heavy cream. This is a change that will be a keeper, I loved the creaminess and the slight tang of the cream cheese. The second change from a traditional recipe is some ground cashew nut paste. The cashew nuts help thicken the gravy and also add a wonderful creaminess.
Tip: Have you ever cooked spinach in a light gravy and noticed that after some time the water and the spinach separate. The same can happen with saag paneer also. To avoid this, add some cashew nut paste as I did. Or there’s another trick. When your curry is almost done, mix some corn starch in some water to make a slurry. Add this to the curry, stir and cook until thickened.
There’s another secret to make nice saag paneer. Use frozen spinach if you can. The frozen spinach somehow has more texture than the fresh ones and is perfect for this curry. Also saves a lot of cutting and chopping time!! And while we are talking are talking about secrets, let me tell you another one. Nutmeg is one spice that pairs beautifully with spinach. Always use a pinch of freshly grated or powdered nutmeg while cooking spinach and experience a whole new flavor dimension. Also, never cover the spinach while cooking, or you will lose that bright green color. You can also blanch fresh spinach and then chop/puree it and use it to make this curry. That will give the curry a really beautiful green color!
Before going to the recipe, this is a rather indulgent version of saag paneer that I make only once in probably 6 months! So feel free to reduce the rich elements (cream cheese and cashews) according to the occasion. The curry will still taste fabulous!
Spinach (chopped) – 5 cups (thaw if you are using frozen spinach)
Onion (chopped) – 1 medium
Crushed Tomatoes – 3/4 cup (or use 3 medium tomatoes, chopped finely)
Garlic (chopped) – 8 large cloves (sounds like too much, but it isn’t!)
Ginger (chopped) – 1 Tbsp
Green chillies/Serrano – 3-4 no.
Cumin seeds/Caraway seeds (Shahi jeera) – 1 tsp
Coriander powder – 1 Tbsp
Turmeric powder – 1/4 tsp
Red Chilli powder/Paprika – 1 tsp (use more/less, adjust to taste)
Garam Masala – 1 1/2 tsp (Substitute with 1 tsp of my special spice blend)
Nutmeg (freshly grated or powdered) – 1/4 tsp
Cumin powder – 3/4 tsp (omit if using cumin seeds)
Cream Cheese (softened) – 6-8 Tbsp (don’t panic already!)
Cashew Nuts – 10-12 no.
Kasuri Methi (Dried fenugreek leaves) – 1 1/2 Tbsp
Cilantro/Coriander leaves (chopped)- 1/4 cup
Oil – 1 Tbsp
Butter – 1 Tbsp
Paneer (cubed) – 8 oz (about 250 gms)
- Heat the oil and butter in a non stick pan or a heavy bottomed pan. Add in the cumin seeds/caraway seeds and saute for 30 seconds. Add in the chopped garlic, ginger and green chillies and saute on low heat for a minute.
- Then add in the onions and turmeric powder, with a pinch of salt and cook until onions are lightly browned.
- Mix in the coriander powder and cumin powder (if using) and toast for a minute. Then add the tomato puree and red chilli powder. Cook on medium-high heat, until the raw smell of the tomatoes goes away and the oil starts separating from the gravy, for about 8-10 minutes.
- If you are using cashew nut paste, add it at this point, and cook until the raw smell of the cashews goes away. Keep stirring, the cashew nut paste can stick to the pan easily. This process will take about 8-10 minutes.
Tip: To make the cashew nut paste, soak the cashews in warm water/milk for 15-20 minutes. Then grind it in a blender to a fine paste.
- Add the chopped spinach and stir to combine everything together. Add salt to taste and the nutmeg powder. Cook, uncovered for about 10 minutes, until the spinach has softened.
Optional: I like to remove half of the curry at this time and process it in a blender/food processor. Just pulse twice or thrice to make a coarse puree. Add this puree back into the curry and continue cooking. I like to do this because it gives a nice velvety texture to the curry. You can actually puree the whole curry also, that’s the way its done in India. But I like to have some texture in the curry, otherwise it looks like processed baby food. So don’t grind it into a smooth gravy, pulse only twice or thrice. I’ve given a picture of both kinds, you can see them and choose what to do
- Add the garam masala powder, crushed kasuri methi leaves and the softened cream cheese, and stir to combine. If you are not using cashew nut paste, mix 1 Tbsp of corn starch with 2 Tbsp of water. Add this to the simmering curry and mix well. Cook for another 3-4 minutes, until the cream cheese has dissolved completely. Add water to adjust the consistency of the gravy at this time. Finish with the chopped cilantro leaves.
- Add in the paneer cubes. There are three ways in which you can prepare the paneer before adding it to the gravy. One, just cube the paneer and add it to the gravy. Two, if you like your paneer really soft, soak the panner in HOT water for 15-20 minutes before adding it to the gravy. Third, cube the paneer. Heat about a Tbsp of oil in a flat pan/skillet and spread the paneer cubes on the pan. Cook until golden brown on the botton, then turn and repeat the same on the other side also.
- What I like to do is a follow a fourth method 😀 Cube the paneer. Mix 2 Tbsp of yogurt, 3/4 tsp salt, 1 Tbsp lemon juice and 1/2 tsp chilli powder and mix well to combine everything. Toss the paneer in this marinade and marinate it for at least 30 minutes. Then spread the marinated cubes on a baking sheet lined with aluminum foil and generously greased with oil. Spread the paneer cubes on the tray and cook under the broiler (in the oven) for about 2 minutes on one side. Then turn the cubes upside down and broil again for 2 minutes, until you get a light golden color on the top. Remove and add to the spinach gravy.
Garnish with some ginger julienne if you like raw ginger.
This photo is with half of the spinach pureed.
These photos are with all of the spinach pureed.