Let's Cook with Meg and Ted

Palak paneer

I sometimes envy people who grew up in a country with a real, living, traditional cuisine. People like Carlo or Alberto who can say, with great certainty, "this is how this Italian dish should be made". Or like Manolis, who seems to have Cretan cuisine built in to him, including a fantastic knowledge of wild greens. Of course, I do remember going to an Italian cooking class at Black Pearl Epicure in Brisbane a few years ago, which had two instructors. Someone asked, "To cook pasta, do you salt the water before or after it comes to the boil?". One instructor said, "Before, of course!", at exactly the same moment that the other said, "After, of course!". Since experts seem to disagree on even these fundamental matters, I don't feel quite as worried as I used to, when making a traditional dish from a foreign cuisine, that I'm buggering it up with my ignorance.

So I feel fairly comfortable cooking Mediterranean food, with or without a recipe. But when it comes to Indian and south-east Asian food, I am at more of a loss. I know the kind of food I like from these areas (the kind served in cheap restaurants with sticky plastic tablecloths, badly translated menus offering lots of obscure fungi and braised fish heads, and non-English speaking waiters, mostly, unless it's Nahm). But faced with a recipe, I can't really tell whether it'll taste any good or not, let alone whether it's actually any more Asian than McDonalds. Reading most Indian recipes on the web, for example, you'd think that 80% of vegetarian curries were flavoured only with chilli and possibly a bit of turmeric or cumin. Surely that's not really the case? I need to get some books on traditional Indian and Asian cooking. Until then, I'll keep experimenting with recipes which catch my eye, and trying to train my sense of what works.

I'd noticed last time I was in Taj Mahal Foods that they had packaged paneer in their cheese section. In Brisbane one of my favourite dishes at an Indian restaurant we went to often was palak paneer, spinach with curd cheese, so I thought this would be a good recipe to start experimenting with. I followed the same procedure as when I made the castagnaccio - download 6 or 8 recipes from the web, work out what are the common elements and what other elements I like, and make it up from there. Incidentally, I also finally tracked down an explanation of the difference between saag paneer and palak paneer (used interchangably on most restaurant menus, I think): this website says that palak is spinach, while saag is mustard greens, which are much less likely to be used in restaurants since they are more expensive and take longer to prepare. Methi (fenugreek) leaves appeared in several recipes, and I (amazingly) found the last bunch left at Taj when I went in to buy the paneer tonight, but if you can't find them you could make up the weight with spinach. The photo above was taken before I thought to stir the yoghurt through (which I think improves the taste, and also lightens the colour). This recipe certainly tasted pretty good to me - but as I say, I have no idea whether it is anything like authentic!

500 g spinach, large stems removed, roughly chopped
100 g bunch of methi (fenugreek), leaves picked
2 or 3 large ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and roughly chopped
150 g paneer, cut into 1.5 cm cubes
ghee (or a mixture of vegetable oil and butter)
1 large onion, peeled and chopped
5 cm piece of ginger, peeled and grated
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely chopped
2 green chillies, chopped (deseed them or not according to taste)
2 heaped teaspoons cumin powder
2 heaped teaspoons coriander powder
1 heaped teaspoon turmeric powder
sea salt
1 - 2 tablespoons of yoghurt

In a large saucepan, place the spinach and methi leaves with just the water clinging to them. Cook them over a medium heat, stirring now and then, until they are well wilted. Cool slightly, then transfer to a food processor, along with the tomatoes. Process for 30 seconds or so, until finely chopped.

Heat some ghee in a frypan, then add the cubed paneer and cook over medium-high heat for several minutes, turning the paneer so it browns lightly on all sides. Remove from the heat and set the cubes on some kitchen towel to soak up any excess oil.

In the large saucepan, heat a little ghee, then add the onions and fry for 5 minutes or so, until softened. Add the ginger, garlic and chillies and cook another 2 minutes, then add the cumin, coriander and turmeric and cook 1 minute more. Tip in the pureed spinach mixture, and bring back to a simmer. Taste and add salt or more spices as necessary. Add the fried paneer, and simmer for 5-10 minutes. Stir through the yoghurt to taste and remove from the heat. Serve with rice.

Serves 4.

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12 March 2004

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