In cooking, some ingredients are matches made in heaven. Spinach and garlic happens to be one such combination, and when you pair this dainty duo with rice, the result is not just delicious. It's fail proof!
While I and my eldest sister weren't not much of cooks growing up at home, the middle sister was our saviour in the kitchen whenever mother was away. Sister M always had a knack at turning things around in the kitchen, and quite delicious for that matter. Considering that she was a picky eater, she liked creating a lot of dishes in her own style. On many trips to M's home in Bangalore, she fed me voraciously. I'm mean it literally. Once I had eaten so much at 3 in the night after arriving from the airport that by 6 in the morning I wasn't in a good shape at all! Nothing with the food, much to do with eating a lot!
Sister M makes this spinach rice or palak pulao, something she picked up from the many rice preparations she ate both in Mangalore and Bangalore, the enormous number of cooking shows she watches and the many ways she uses to utilize easily available pantry ingredients to make something incredibly tasty at home. I learnt it from her first, and over the years I started making small changes in the recipe to arrive at a version that I usually make now. Although I normally don't go gaga about cashews, I like it a lot in this rice—characteristic of how M makes it. The nutty flavour of roasted cashews adds a ton of crunch and taste amidst rice that looks so green and smells umami.
I like to start with some earthy spices like peppercorns, bayleaf and cloves as the base flavour of this dish. I keep them whole and not pounded to help the rice absorb their fragrance and not much of their robust flavour. Cumin and garlic form the second layer of seasoning, both being the dominant scents and tastes in the dish. A combination of chopped and blended spinach makes a gravy sort of base and when you dunk rice in it, everything combines beautifully to yield an appetizing colour as well.
This rice is easy to make and comes together with simple ingredients. Eat it as is with nothing on the side or whip up some yogurt or pan fry some vegetables. Eggplants cut as roundels and tossed with some salt, oil and chili goes really well. You can also serve it with a legume dish of your choice, some pickled vegetables or a mellow chutney.
Don't be overwhelmed by the whole spices like cloves, peppercorns and cardamom listed in the ingredients. You can make this palak pulao without them and it will still taste great. The only things you should not skip are cumin and garlic. Cumin and garlic when paired with spinach creates an exciting flavour profile, one that's hard to mess with.
To maintain the granularity of rice and not make it a lump, always rinse and soak the rice the first thing in the recipe. Get on with prepping the other ingredients and start cooking. This ensures two things: one, the thin layer of starch from the rice gets removed and prevents the grains from sticking, and two, absorption of water in rice starts the cooking process even before rice enters the pot. Result is shorter cooking time and fluffier rice!
Making a paste of a portion of the spinach leaves adds the lovely green colour. If you chop all the spinach, your pulao may not look as green but will still taste amazing!
1 cup long grained rice like Basmati (or medium grain rice)
1 small bunch of spinach
1 and 1/2 tbsp oil
5-6 cashews (optional)
1 tsp cumin
1 bay leaf
1 black cardamom, slightly crushed
2 whole dried red chilies
3-4 cloves of garlic, chopped and pounded
1 small onion or a quarter of a large onion, chopped finely
1/4 tsp turmeric
1/4 tsp red chili powder
1/2 tsp coriander powder
1/4 tsp garam masala
2 tsp salt, or to taste
Wash the rice in several changes of water. Rinse and keep it soaked while you proceed with the recipe.
Boil water and add to a large bowl. Add the spinach leaves to it, wash by gently rubbing the leaves inside the bowl for 5-7 minutes. Drain the water. Wash in cold water and make sure no dirt remains on the leaves.
Separate about a quarter of the spinach leaves from the bunch and finely chop them. Add the remaining leaves to a blender along with some water and make a fine paste.
Heat a heavy bottom pan or vessel and add oil. Once the oil is hot, add bay leaf, peppercorns, cloves, black cardamom and dry red chilies. Sauté the whole spices for a couple of seconds and then add cumin. Add the cashews as well if using. As the cumin crackles, add the garlic. Reduce the heat slightly to avoid burning the garlic. Sauté for 10 seconds - you should be able to smell the garlic now.
Add onions and sauté till they turn pink. Then add turmeric, red chili and coriander and continue stirring for 2-3 minutes. Let everything sizzle until the onions begin turning brown.
Add the chopped spinach and give a good mix. Sauté for about 3 minutes and then add the garam masala. Keep stirring until the spinach leaves start wilting. At this stage, add the pureed spinach and cook on medium flame for about 5-7 minutes. Make sure if there's extra water in the puree, it evaporates.
Drain the water from the rice and add rice to the spinach cooking in the masala. Add a little bit of salt and give everything a mix. Add 2 cups of water, more salt and close the lid. Cook for about 13 minutes on low heat.
Turn off the heat, open and fluff the rice with a fork before serving.