Palak Paneer: Cottage Cheese cooked with Spinach
Palak paneer is a combination of protein packed cottage cheese with nutrient rich spinach. It makes a lip smacking wholesome meal when served with rice or flat bread. Or simply relish it as a single no-carb big meal if you are on a diet!
My version of this recipe involves coriander leaves and fenugreek leaves along with spinach for the green puree. I relish a thick creamy texture for this gravy, and I do not fry the paneer at all before adding to the gravy.
Tips on making this dish vegan and ideas on how create a yummy palak paneer, further in the post.
Although world famous as an Indian food, the art of making paneer was taught by Portuguese to Indians as noted by the venerable K.T Achaya. The history of curdling milk and making cheese is more than 7000 years old when sheep were first domesticated in Mesopotamia (present day Middle East). However paneer is not cheese. It has a close cousin in Turkey called peynir, although the two are different.
What is paneer?
(If you don't know already) Paneer in its truest form could be regarded as unsalted soft cheese. Although the process of making cheese and paneer are different. After hot milk is curdled using a souring agent like lime juice or vinegar, the fresh curdled product formed is cottage cheese or chhena. Squeeze this cottage cheese in a muslin cloth, press it in the sieve, and leave it to settle for an hour or so. What you get is paneer! Unlike cheese, there is no emulsification in the process of making paneer, rendering it as a perishable product.
Can I make this dish vegan?
To make this dish vegan, you can use tofu instead of paneer. I have made it with tofu, and it tastes great! The only change I would recommend in the recipe is to stir fry the tofu slightly before adding to the spinach gravy. This imparts a nice smoky flavour to tofu (if your tofu is not already flavoured), and the dish tastes better.
What are some tips to cook a tasty palak paneer?
I have made palak paneer in many different ways, and eaten it at many restaurants and homes because it's one my most favourite things to eat! What I have learnt over the years:
Garlic is an essential element in cooking spinach, or any leafy vegetable for that matter. It adds a punch with its pungent taste and aroma, and helps enhance spinach's usually raw flavour. Don't skip it in the recipe at all!
The concept of palak paneer has evolved from saag paneer, where saag stands for an Indian name to any kind of greens like spinach, vine spinach, mustard greens, amaranth, fenugreek leaves, radish leaves, leaves of drumstick, and many more! Hence, adding a note of some other green to spinach always renders a more rounded flavour. I especially like to use coriander and fenugreek leaves, as they are easier to get in Canada. If you don't have access to fresh fenugreek leaves, use kasoori methi (dried fenugreek leaves).
Use a small quantity of onions, but definitely use them. On being fried, onions caramelize and impart a slightly sweet taste to the gravy that helps to balance the pungent ingredients.
Adding dry whole spices in the tempering adds a smoky flavour to the dish and a tinge of nutmeg in the end lends the most subtle top notes to the flavours!
After adding the spinach puree to the spices in the pan, let it cook for at least 5-7 minutes on a low to medium flame by continuously stirring. Do not add water after this point.
For the puree: 2 bundles of spinach or 1 big box of spinach leaves, 2-3 cloves of garlic, ¼ bundle of coriander leaves
200-250 grams of paneer (fresh homemade or store bought)
For the gravy: 2 tablespoons of neutral oil, dry whole spices: 2 bay leaves, 1 dry red chili, 4-5 peppercorns, 2 cloves, 1 teaspoon cumin, 1-inch ginger, 3-4 cloves of garlic and 1 green chili grounded coarsely, 1 big red onion or 2 small red onions chopped, 1 pinch of asafoetida, 1/2 teaspoon turmeric, 1 teaspoon red chili powder, 1 teaspoon coriander powder, 1 and ½ teaspoon kasoori methi (dry fenugreek leaves), 1 medium tomato finely chopped, few spinach leaves chopped, 1 tablespoon coarsely ground dry roasted coriander seeds, 1 pinch of nutmeg powder or grated nutmeg, 1 tablespoon of Greek (or normal) yogurt (optional), salt to taste
Blanch and make the spinach puree:
If you are using spinach bunch (and not leaves), cut off a portion of the bundle, keeping a part of the stem intact with the leaves.
Wash and clean the spinach leaves. Keep a few leaves separately to chop later.
Blanch the spinach and then blend along with the ingredients listed for the puree. Keep the puree aside.
Blanching: Dunk spinach leaves to boiling water, keep for about 45 seconds, drain in a colander/strainer and put it under cold running water. Squeeze the spinach leaves a bit.
Make the gravy:
Chop the spinach leaves which were kept separately.
Cut the paneer into cubes.
Place a wok or pan on medium heat, and add oil.
Let the oil smoke up a bit, and then add the dry whole spices.
When the spices impart aroma, add the cumin seeds and let them splutter.
Add the minced ginger, garlic, green chili and sauté for about 1 minute till they turn golden.
Add the chopped onions and sauté for the next 2 minutes or so.
Add the asafoetida, turmeric, red chili and coriander powder, and sauté the onions until they turn brownish.
Add the kasoori methi and mix well till you can smell the dry leaves.
Add the tomato, and let it cook for about a minute or two.
Add the chopped spinach leaves, mix and then add the coarsely ground dry roasted coriander seeds.
Add some water to get a gravy like consistency and then add the yogurt.
Mix everything and salt to taste.
Let it simmer for 2 minutes and then add the blanched spinach.
Keep stirring the spinach until the gravy thickens.
Taste and adjust salt if needed. Add the nutmeg powder but don’t mix.
Add the paneer:
Place the paneer cubes in the gravy and slightly shake the pan or wok to let the paneer cubes sink into the gravy.
Continue cooking for 5-7 minutes on a low to medium heat.
Turn off the heat and relish hot with flat bread or rice!