Saag Paneer with Kale, Chard and Lettuce
Saag paneer has always been my must-order dish when getting Indian takeout, so it was a delightful surprise to learn that it's very achievable to make at home. And speaking of learning new things: I'd always thought that saag paneer was made from spinach. Anyone else out there who thinks that saag means spinach? Not true. Turns out that, according to Wikipedia and the Indian cooking blog Ambika's Kitchen and texts from my friends Rahul and Tara, that saag refers to leafy green vegetables and can be made with many different greens, commonly broccoli raab and mustard greens, whereas palak paneer is actually a slightly different dish specifically made with spinach. Which makes saag paneer not only a crazy delicious dish, but an easy way to use up lots of random leafy greens, even slightly wilted ones.
The above version of the dish is loosely based on Aarti Sequeira's Food Network version, with a mix of kale, turnip greens, chard, and lettuce, all of which came together in my Fresh Harvest box. It turned out to be a great combination, with the sturdier kale and chard adding more flavor and heft, while the lighter lettuce helped achieve the smooth silkiness that we're used to in restaurant-level saag paneer. I also used some plain yogurt and some cream as the dairy element, but it looks like people also use anything from cream cheese to buttermilk, so you could consider this an opportunity to use up any dairy you might have hanging around the fridge. I also made this in an Instant Pot, which was very easy, but you definitely don't need. I'll add some notes if you also choose to do so.
If you have lots and lots of whole milk, you could also make your own paneer according to Aarti's recipe. This could also be a good option if your local store doesn't sell paneer. I'll do a roundup of easy homemade cheeses to make with extra milk someday, but for now, store-bought paneer is very easy to work with. Hope this satisfies all your Indian takeout saag paneer cravings and uses up all your random greens too!
The Rough Recipe
This recipe probably took about 45 minutes, although much of it was spent reading emails and waiting for the flavors to develop. Depending on how many greens you have, this could feed 4 to 6 with naan or another starch. Make it vegan by using coconut milk and gluten-free by eating with rice instead of naan.
Here's what you'll need:
- 12 ounces paneer (or whatever your package size, but I firmly believe the more paneer, the better)
- Turmeric and/or cayenne (delicious, but don't feel like you have to have them to make this recipe)
- Ghee, butter, or neutral oil
- Kosher salt
- 1 medium onion, diced
- 4-8 cloves of garlic, minced
- 1 inch of fresh ginger, minced
- 1 diced chile of your choice (optional)
- 6-8 cups of leafy greens, such as spinach, kale, chard, collards, mustard greens, beet greens, turnip greens, broccoli raab or lettuce, very finely chopped. Use up the stems and the leaves if you can!
- 1 teaspoon garam masala, or more to taste
- 1 tablespoon ground coriander, or more to taste
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin, or more to taste
- Optional other spices include: mustard seeds, red pepper flakes, cardamom, cloves, paprika, fenugreek, caraway seeds, nutmeg
- 1/2 to 1 cup of dairy, such as plain yogurt, cream, whole milk, buttermilk or cream cheese (if cream cheese I'd start with 1/4 cup and slowly add more) or a combination
Cut your paneer into small cubes and place in a small bowl. Toss with a sprinkle of turmeric and a pinch of cayenne, if using, and a large pinch of salt. Coat the bottom of a large skillet with ghee, butter, or your neutral oil and heat over medium heat. Fry the paneer until well-browned on at least two sides, then set aside. I like my paneer with lots of texture and well seasoned, so I try to brown it on all sides and I add a good amount of salt. Taste and adjust as desired.
Meanwhile, prepare your aromatics and greens. I whizzed the onion, garlic, ginger and chile in my food processor, transferred them to a bowl, and processed all the greens until they were very finely minced. If you don't have a food processor or blender, you can just chop them all. Coat the bottom of a large pot, Dutch oven, or Instant pot with more ghee or oil, then add the onion, ginger, garlic and chile. Saute until it's 'evenly toffee-colored' as Aarti says, which takes about 15 minutes and 'is the foundation of the dish'. It seems like a long time, but just try to be patient - I stood next to my Instant Pot and read emails and scrolled through my Instagram feed and just looked at the pot every so often. Listen for sizzling - when the mixture starts to burn a little or gets too dry, add a small splash of water. Once that water evaporates, do it again, until the mixture is uniformly brown and concentrated with flavor.
Add your spices of choice and stir to combine, then cook a few more minutes for all the flavors to mingle. Add your finely chopped greens - all at once if possible, but if they don't fit or it's getting difficult to stir, add in batches. Stir constantly to combine with the onion mixture and let the greens wilt completely. Once all your greens are in and everything has collapsed, add about 1/2 cup of water, stir, and let everything cook down for a few more minutes. If you're using an Instant Pot, I put the lid on and pressure cooked for 5 minutes on Manual. If you included stems or sturdier greens, you may want to cook longer than if you used lighter leaves.
When the greens get to a texture you like, turn off the heat. It's time to add your dairy, which I do by tempering to avoid the dairy curdling from the heat. What this means is putting 1/2 cup of your dairy in a bowl with some room to spare and adding a spoonful of the hot spinach and stirring thoroughly. Once it's mixed, add a larger spoonful of the spinach to the dairy mixture and stir again. Repeat once or twice more until the dairy is no longer cold and now can be added back to the large pot of spinach without curdling. Taste, and if desired, stir in a little more dairy until it reaches the consistency you like. Salt to taste (in my opinion, the saag needs a good amount of salt at this point, but I like things well seasoned).
(You'll notice that I say 'to taste' and 'to a texture/consistency/flavor you like' a lot in this recipe. My guess is that if you're making this at home, you've had it in a restaurant before and have an idea of the dish in your mind that you're trying to achieve. At least that's how I made it. If that's not the case and you need more description, let me know!)
Serve hot, with the starch of your choice, such as homemade or store-bought naan, or rice. I made the above naan using the recipe of a friend's new book, My Kitchen Chalkboard. Doesn't it look great? Let me know if you'd like to see it and I'll post it!