If you quizzed me on the difference between saag paneer and palak paneer I would fail the quiz, most likely because I would be preoccupied with tasting both dishes, one after the other, until the bowls were empty. I have made versions of both in recent weeks because I love these flavors, all warm and nutty and earthy from the spices, creamy from the yogurt and cheese, with the slight bitterness that comes from the greens. Though Indian spice combinations are relatively new to me, the dishes containing them are my ultimate comfort food. At the end of a long week, I wanted nothing more than a bowl of this saag paneer, with crisp-edged cheese and saucy greens and rice stained yellow from the turmeric, and to park on the couch with my current sewing project. (After I washed my hands twice to remove said turmeric.)
This dish represents my recreation of a saag paneer recipe from Aarti Sequeira; the changes reflect my discovery, midway through prep with greens already wilting and paneer marinating, that I had no fresh serranos in the fridge, not even a jalapeno. In addition, I had already diced two Romas (I had looked at a dozen or more paneer recipes and got tomato jumbled in the ingredient list somewhere), and my block of paneer was larger than what was called for, but is anyone really concerned about too much delicious cheese? (The browned, marinated paneer was so tasty I had to move the bowl out of reach to keep from snacking on it as I cooked.) The spices are mostly the same as the original recipe. The resulting meal was delicious and will be made again. If you have trouble finding paneer, Aarti’s recipe includes a link to making it at home; to make this dish vegan, replace the cheese with tofu.
- 4 T. canola or grapeseed oil, separated
- 1 tsp. ground turmeric
- 1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper
- 1 tsp. kosher salt
- 12 – 14 oz. paneer, cut into equal-sized cubes
- 3 – 4 c. fresh baby greens*
- 1 medium yellow onion, diced
- 3 large garlic cloves, minced
- 1 T. fresh ginger, minced
- 1/2 tsp. garam masala
- 1 1/2 tsp. ground coriander
- 1 tsp. ground cumin
- 1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes (optional)
- pinch of salt
- 1/2 c. diced fresh tomatoes or canned diced tomatoes (optional)
- 1/2 c. water
- 1/2 c. Greek yogurt, plus more for garnish, if desired
- cooked rice to serve
It’s a good idea to have your ingredients prepped before you start cooking this dish. In a large bowl, combine 3 T. oil with the turmeric, cayenne and 1 tsp. salt; mix to form a marinade and then gently toss your paneer in this marinade until coated on all sides. Allow the paneer to sit while you prep the other ingredients.
In a large, heavy-bottomed stainless steel or cast-iron skillet or Dutch oven, heat 1/2 T. oil over medium heat. Add the greens and allow them to wilt, stirring occasionally, for about 5 mins. You don’t want them to be mush, and you don’t want them to brown, just to cook most of the way through. Remove the cooked greens to a plate or cutting board and roughly chop them.
In the same pan over medium heat, cook the paneer in batches until it is golden brown on at least one side of each square, using a wooden spoon or spatula to carefully turn the pieces and then scrape the browned bits off the bottom of the pan as you go. Work in batches, if necessary, to allow each piece of paneer to brown evenly. Remove the browned cheese to a bowl, leaving behind as much oil in the pan as you can.
Add the remaining 1/2 T. oil to the pan, then the onion, garlic and ginger. Stirring occasionally, cook over medium heat for 15 mins. until softened and slightly golden. Midway through, add about 1 T. water to the pan and vigorously scrape the bottom to prevent sticking/burning and get all the flavorful brown bits incorporated into your aromatic mixture. Add the garam masala, coriander, cumin and red pepper, if using, and stir to thoroughly coat the onion mixture in spice. It will be very dry, which is okay. Cook for 2-3 mins., stirring constantly, to cook the spices through; add the chopped greens, tomatoes, 1/2 c. water and a pinch of salt to the pan and stir. Allow the vegetables to simmer gently for about 5 mins. until the tomatoes soften and the sauce thickens. Carefully, a little bit at a time to prevent curdling, add the yogurt to sauce. When all the yogurt is incorporated, add the paneer to the pan and toss gently with the sauce. Continue to cook over low heat until everything is warmed through; this is your saag paneer. Serve a generous ladle of saag paneer over rice; garnish with additional yogurt if you like.
*Use a combination of cooking greens you like eating that have relatively similar cooking times. The blend I used included was a “baby mix” of tender spinach, kale and chard.