Saag Paneer

Say cheese: Saag Paneer is a great way to use an abundance of local greens. Chai Pani serves theirs with both pressed paneer and a softer variety of the housemade cheese. Photo by Mackensy Lunsford

Molly and Meherwan Irani of Chai Pani share the secrets of their authentically green crowd-pleaser. Makes enough for a large family, with some left over (also great for a potluck dish).

1 gallon whole milk
1 pint half-and-half
1 quart whole yogurt
1 tsp of salt

To make fresh paneer at home, bring 1 gallon of whole milk and a pint of half-and-half to a boil. When the milk starts to rise, turn flame down and add 1 teaspoon of salt and one quart of whole yogurt and stir gently until the curds start to separate. The curds will clump together and a greenish-clear liquid (whey) will be left behind. If the curds don't separate, you can add lemon juice (bottled is fine) a squirt or so at a time until the separation starts.

Strain the curds through a cheese cloth or a very fine strainer (a chinois is best). Once strained, form into a round mound, place on a plate, put another plate on top and place a heavy weight on top to further press the water out. The cheese will form into a firm wheel and can be sliced, cubed, etc.

Saag (spinach):
5 lbs local spinach
1/2 cup oil
1 tbsp black mustard seeds
2 tbsp cumin powder
2 tbsp cumin seeds
1 tbsp fenugreek
2 tbsp diced serranos
3 tbsp ginger, finely diced
3 tbsp garlic, finely diced
6 cups white onions, diced small
1 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
2 tbsp turmeric powder
2 tbsp coriander powder
1/2 tbsp cayenne
3 cups tomatoes, finely diced
1 pint half-and-half
Salt to taste

Blanch 5 pounds of leafy green spinach and set aside. In a large sautée pan, heat oil and add black mustard seeds. When the mustard seeds start to pop, add cumin seed and fenugreek. Stir for a minute and add diced serranos, ginger and garlic. After another minute, add onions and a pinch of salt to help them sweat faster. Cook on medium-high until the onions are fully caramelized. Stir frequently while cooking to make sure they don't burn. Completely browning the onions is a very important aspect of Indian cooking and where a lot of the flavor comes from.

Add cilantro and stir for a minute until it starts to darken. Add turmeric powder, cumin powder, coriander powder, cayenne and stir for a minute on medium until the spices darken. You can add a 1/4 cup of water to deglaze if the spices are sticking or clumping. Add fresh tomatoes (or 2 cups of crushed canned tomatoes). Cook until glossy and the oil starts to separate at the edges of the pan.

Add the blanched (and well-strained) spinach and stir for 6-7 minutes until dark. Add 4 cups of water, stir well. Bring to a simmer. Add half and half and simmer for another 5 minutes. Add cubed paneer, salt to taste (usually a tablespoon or so) and simmer (don't cover the pan) for 5 more minutes. Serve with rice or flat bread. The exact same recipe can also be used with mustard greens if you're looking for greens with more bite!

Note: All of the spices (fenugreek seeds are the most difficult to find) can be purchased in the spice aisle of most grocery stores. You can also purchased pre-made paneer. Meherwan says that Foreign Affairs on Tunnel Road stocks all Indian spices, as well as the farmstead cheese.


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