eastern essentials

For readers already infatuated with Indian cuisine, skip ahead. Once you discover the sensation that is Indian food, you’ll see how silly for me to go about explaining things. Whatever misconceptions you might have about “curry”, “spicy food”, and other notions about unfamiliar combinations, you leave them right here in this opening paragraph and we’ll move on together. No looking back.

In your mental skillet, imagine olive oil glistening over the heat. Smell the garlic, onion, and ginger crackling and golden. Toss in some seeds and colorful spices–mild in every way but flavor.  Stir in tomatoes, chicken, eggplant, spinach—whatever your favorite entrée. Simmer into a sauce to pour over fluffy, fragrant basmati and scoop up with rich buttery Indian flatbread.

Basic ingredients, new combinations. Not spicy, but well-spiced.  Vibrant, unforgettable food that redefines flavor. Not so scary, eh?

Because we’re starting simple, I’m going to divide yesterday’s Indian feast into two posts. Let’s begin with Palak Paneer: creamy (though creamless) spinach and onion sauce with cubes of fried cheese. Tell me that appeals to abundant cultural palettes?

Though Indian cuisine embraces rich sauces and flavor more complex than any other, the ingredients are often in your freezer and pantry. This traditional recipe for Palak Paneer is phenomenal, and a new jar of Garam Masala in the spice cabinet might be the only ingredient unique to your dinner. Garam Masala is a spice blend with ground coriander, cumin, cloves, and cinnamon—most grocery stores now carry it with everyday spices.

Paneer is Indian cheese, whole milk that has simply been strained. It has little flavor (since it’s just cow’s milk) and does not melt, making it perfect for frying in olive oil and simmering in sauces. You can purchase it at Whole Foods, at some Trader Joes, and ethnic markets. If you can’t find paneer, you can use chicken or another protein, though the sauce alone is perfect with a side starch. I have not tried substituting Haloumi cheese (with very similar properties), and I bet it would be wonderful.

a fast method to chop cilantro: just scrape your knife along the stems in a downward motion

The nice thing about preparing Palak Paneer—at least the way I learned it in my Indian cuisine cooking class—is you blend all the sautéed ingredients, meaning you don’t have to spend your time on such precise chopping.Traditional Indian food is rarely finicky about technique or measurement, delightfully simple to make. One of many reasons to add it to your repertoire.

Palak Paneer (Spinach with Cheese)

loosely based on Rosy’s recipe from AllRecipes.com, and what I remembered from my Indian cooking class

2 tbsp. olive oil (or 1 tbsp. oil, 1 tbsp. butter)

2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced (on your microplane)

1/2 teaspoon toasted cumin seed

1 (3 inch) piece ginger, peeled and minced (on your microplane)

2 teaspoons garam masala

1 teaspoon salt

1 large onion, chopped

1 cup water, or as needed

10 to 16 oz. (give or take) frozen chopped spinach, thawed and drained

1 pound paneer, cut into 1/2 inch cubes (Finnish Frying Cheese or Halloumi are great substitutes)

1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro (optional)

juice of half a lemon 

Before you start on the Palak Paneer, start cooking your rice so they’ll finish at the same time. Click here for my recipe on authentic basmati.

the sauce

Heat oil/butter in a large saucepan over medium-low heat. Stir in garlic and cumin seed; cook until the garlic softens, about 3 minutes. Add the ginger, 1 teaspoon garam masala, salt, onion, and water. Increase heat to medium and simmer until the water reduces a bit. Don’t hesitate to add more water to keep a sauce-like consistency.

Stir in spinach and cook until hot, about 5 minutes. Transfer to an immersion or upright blender and blend with the lemon juice, adding more water if needed.

the cheese

In the same pan (if nonstick), add the cubes of paneer to one tablespoon of hot vegetable oil. Using tongs, turn them as they develop a flavorful crispy crust.

how easy is that?

Add paneer to the sauce, heating an additional 5 minutes, or until hot. Pour into a serving dish and sprinkle with cilantro and remaining garam masala. Taste and add a pinch of salt, if needed. Serve over rice (here’s how I make it every time), or scoop up with Naan—traditional Indian flatbread. Pita, though not authentic, would work wonderfully. Andrew and I have not been impressed with any of the plastic-packaged Naan near the grocery store bakeries—uck, save your money. Trader Joes has the best Naan in their freezer section.

Next time: Chana Masala, chickpeas with tomatoes. Please, please share your questions and successes in the comment section. I know plenty of you out there excited for an excuse to try something completely new. Welcome.

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1 Comment

Filed under budget, dinners, health, techniques, the basics

One response to “eastern essentials

  1. rachael collins

    This is such a great entry as Indian is becoming a regular part of my diet. However, Indian and other ethnic food here in TCR isn’t as spicy as my Western pallaet would wish so, 99% of my Indian dinners are, of course, homemade. These are great veggie recipies as the summer is almost upon us and eating well ( and enjoying it!) is essential for the hotter days. Great little post with, as always, handy tips.
    Kudos kid!
    PS- Also, I must confess, Marks and Spencers food hall is a HUGE help.

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