Saag Paneer (er… Halloumi)

It’s been two weeks since our suntanned landfall from Ocean Adventure 2013, and yet I feel like it has taken me this entire time to really get my act together.  I achieved some important goals this weekend:  unpacked the last of my suitcase (now, honestly), made a triumphant and sweaty return to yoga, and hauled out my bike from the depths of our storage room after a particularly energetic campaign last spring to organize and maximize space in our apartment, resulting in the relegation of many bins to what had previously been a fairly austere bike closet.

I also got what I’d consider to be Back in the Game, as far as a consistent and joyful kitchen presence goes.  It helped immensely that we had also, I think, pretty fully gotten back into our respective and combined Life in the City Games – we biked all over the way north side, east to the lake, back west to a new (to us) bike shop, and then south on Lincoln to the new (to us) taproom at Half Acre; we walked over to one of the best parts of our little neighborhood, Spacca Napoli, and had burrata and arugula salad and all the pizza; we made zero social plans; we did “nothing” – really just cooking and laundry and sleeping and staring at the clouds and the lake – like we always say we’re going to.

So this weekend, I joyfully and calmly, and without fear of judgment because hell, this dish wasn’t going past our own doors, made Saag Paneer. Translated: spinach with paneer cheese. Lots of paneer. ALL THE PANEER. Every time I make this I think, “Know what, dude? This cheese is too addictive, and way too easy to pop in my mouth, and I need to not make this again. NO MORE AFTER TODAY.” And then I make it again. That, and the spinach is so ridiculously good, and you end up consuming, in cooked form, close to what had been a pound of raw greens. So we must offset, no?
 
I saw this particular recipe on 101 Cookbooks, which was apparently inspired by this recipe on Food52, which was apparently inspired by mountains of creamed spinach. Which is to say that the central concern of this particular recipe is not authenticity. Though, now that I think of it, I would not know Indian culinary authenticity if it slapped me in the ass, so maybe those bowls of pureed-looking spinachy-creamy goo studded with stark-white cubes of paneer I’ve gotten (and very much enjoyed) on Devon Avenue are for the gringos and this one’s got it right. Maybe this version, which seems to me at least more rustic, is actually what someone’s Indian grandmother is making somewhere RIGHT NOW. Who knows. (Anyone care to weigh in?) All I know is, well, a few things:
 
 
 

  1. You end up eating a BOATLOAD of spinach, as I mentioned above. Which is good, because packing that amount of green goodness into one bowl is tough to do in one sitting.
  2. It is delicious on its own or over a little bit of rice – my favorite for this is brown basmati. The rice certainly helps to stretch it and make it more substantial. Which is Lesson #2 in Living With and Cooking For A Dude. (That is, I am usually fine sitting down to a bowl of cooked greens, but Danny enjoys a bit more substance and heft to dinner, so you find ways to add some without too much bulk.) (Incidentally, Lesson #1 seems to be: Finding Wakeup Ringtones that are Just Jarring Enough but Will Not Go So Far as to Induce Terror in Spouse.)
  3. The paneer – or in this most recent incarnation, halloumi – is NOT to be trifled with. You are frying cheese in butter (or oil), and that? A slippery slope, my doves. You will snack on it while waiting for the rest of the spinach to cook down. You will consider eating only the paneer/halloumi for dinner and tell yourself that the saag will be a perfectly serviceable lunch on its own, cheeseless, at work tomorrow and for various dinners the rest of the week. You will only stop yourself from doing so because you know you are only denying yourself the joy of crispy fried cheese later in a week that could, for all you know, be fraught with peril and in need of a dairy-based hero. You exercise control. But just barely.
  4. The spice blend is bomb, and you should feel completely comfortable making a double batch of it and using it on all manner of other things – toast drizzled with a little olive oil, any sort of scrambled egg concoction, even popcorn. I’m relatively new to the world of exotic homemade spice blends so this is a valuable little recipe-within-a recipe, for me at least.
Please note that this recipe borrows heavily from Heidi Swanson’s version as linked above.  I tweak a few things solely for the sake of taste, likely ignoring authenticity altogether. I don’t chop my spinach – I find it’s a large extra step and I’ve come to enjoy the texture when the leaves are left whole.  I also add some extra heat to the spice mixture, AND add some extra spice mixture to the pot.  Finally, you’ll see that I’ve also come to prefer halloumi to paneer in the recipe, which makes me think I should scroll back up and change the name of this recipe altogether, call a spade a spade, and name this bastardization something like Tasty Indian-esque Creamed Spinach Grilled Cheese Delight.
 
But I won’t.  You’d never make that.
 
So get this:

  • 2 lbs fresh spinach, washed. (Unless you buy the 16oz clamshells pre-washed, which I recommend, and in which case, I do not bother washing. Judge me.)  I often bulk up the greens quotient to make more leftovers and counteract (lamely, probably) the amount of butter/oil this recipe uses, which isn’t much, but is a little more than what we’re used to. The first few times I made this, I used the fresh, grown-up bundled spinach, and it is certainly nice.  HOWEVER: the result is not really superior in any way to the result of using the big 16oz packages of fresh spinach.  (I think the first time I made this we had just gotten a new salad spinner so shut up, I was excited, and we wanted an excuse to wash up a whole bunch of silty, sandy greens and dry ’em up real nice. So that was cool, but unnecessary.  I won’t be doing it again, I think.)  Um, I have not used frozen and don’t think I want to.

  • A small wad of butter or ghee.  You probably don’t need 2 whole tablespoons, but if you’re feeling crazy, go for it. I also prefer the butter taste in this dish, but you could use oil.
  • A brick of paneer or halloumi.  Paneer has been difficult to come by in these last couple trips to the store (due to some machinery issue with the paneer producer, apparently), and you know what?  I am totally good with it.  I find that halloumi – while certainly not as authentic – has a tangier kick for flavor, due primarily, I think, to the fact that it’s made from sheep and goat milk, as opposed to milder cow’s milk in the paneer.  When I buy this, it tends to be in a package between 7 and 12 ounces, so I use the biggest one I can find.  (Because CHEESE.)   
  • 2 onions, chopped
  • a bit of salt
  • 4 cloves of garlic, minced.
  • 2 generous tablespoons fresh grated ginger. This may seem heavy on the ginger, but remember you’re also using 2 pounds of spinach.
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons magical spice mixture* (see below)
  • 1/4 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • Cream/Greek yogurt to stir in, lemon to squeeze on, sesame seeds to sprinkle (all optional, but excellent)

First, your spice mixture.  Yes, I’m putting up here first because you need it bad and I don’t want you forgetting about it while your spinach turns gray in the pot as you rush around spilling cumin all over yourself.  Note: I throw a little extra red pepper flake in there because I now have the heat tolerance of a small dragon.  Feel free to scale it back to 1 tsp if you like.
 
Do this:  use a mortar and pestle or spice grinder to grind the following spices as finely as possible – 2 tablespoons cumin seed, 1 tablespoons coriander seed, 2 teaspoons mustard seed, 1 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes, 1/8 teaspoon cardamom seeds, 3 whole cloves. Store in an airtight container and use here and on anything else you’d like to make taste seriously happy.
 
Okay, NOW do this:
 
Drain the cheese well if you find there is any extra moisture in the package.  Cube it into 1/4- to 1/2-inch pieces. We all know you will snack on this cheese.  But do me a favor:  hold off, if you can, until you’ve browned it on a few sides before you try it.  Cold halloumi (or paneer, really) is not smiles times, and you have to trust me that it gets about 3000% better once it’s warmed and a little crispy.  (A friend of mine recommends the halloumi grilled in a slab and topped with honey and chopped mint.  I will be eating that all summer.)
 
Cook the cheese in one tablespoon of the butter over medium heat in a large skillet. Make sure the cheese is in a single layer and use a spatula to flip it regularly so all sides get deeply brown. This typically takes 7 minutes or so. Remove from the pan and set aside.
 
Heat the other tablespoon of butter in your largest soup pot. Add the onions and salt, and saute until the onions soften up, five minutes or so. Add the garlic, ginger, spice mixture, and turmeric. Cook, stirring frequently, until fragrant and nicely combined – a minute or two.
 
Turn the heat up to medium-high and add as much spinach as you can to the pan.  (Unless you are cooking this in a bathtub, I do not believe you will be able to fit all of your spinach at once.  One perk to chopping it beforehand, I suppose.)  Add the spinach in batches as large as you can handle, and stir the whole time, distributing the cooked leaves through the uncooked leaves to help everything wilt.  Once everything is just wilted, you can lower the heat down to a simmer.
 
Stir in the buttermilk and cream/yogurt and heat gently while stirring. Taste and add more salt if necessary and even more red pepper flakes if you like.  Squeeze a bit of lemon over it, and top with some of the crispy cheese.
 

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