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A Californian saag-paneer

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This saag-paneer recipe is unapologetically Californian. The only thing Indian about this is my homeland. The inspiration came from watching and then making Rick Martinez’s Pozole Verde. If you don’t have access to tomatillo or poblano, or you look at kale with trepidation, I recommend that you look for some other recipe. Like the “Thousand and One Nights”, there are a thousand variations of saag-paneer to dive into.

In this version, we are combining the bitterness, sweetness, savoriness and tartness of the components, to try and create a whole that is bigger than the sum of its parts, like a complex mole sauce. There are two distinct stages here, that are independent. The first is making of the fragrant paneer, and once made, you can use it in other recipes. The second is the green sauce, built from roasted vegetables and slow braised leafy vegetables. The sauce needs to be paired with a rich protein source, like the paneer or a slow cooked pork. The final stage is putting it together.

Following makes 4-6 servings.

Stage 1: The paneer

Making paneer is like making fresh ricotta. Essentially, you scald the milk, add acid and take the resulting casein protein coagulate and make that into blocks that you can subsequently cut up. Here are what we are going to need:

  • 2 gallons of whole milk
  • Crushed cardamom seeds, remove the husk and use mortal and pestle to crush
  • Half teaspoon of turmeric powder, you can tell it is fresh from its aroma
  • 2 fat limes, zest and juice, keep separate
  • Salt

You can use any normal whole milk, but I am going to pay homage to Alexandre Milk (6% fat) – the first one I used to make this recipe. I mix the milk with a tsp of salt, zest of a lime or two, a half tsp of turmeric, a half tsp of crushed cardamom pods. Once it reaches boiling point, you put just enough lime juice to curdle the milk and get a clear whey. Then drain the coagulants away from the whey. The whey can be re-purposed if you are not lactose sensitive, it contains whey protein and is traditionally used in lentil soups. The coagulant can be pressed into a block, cooled and chopped into blocks.

I love the yellow paneer blocks in my green saag. Cardamom is a super spice. Its sweet tones go well with complex roasted flavors of the vegetables that will follow in the sauce. Once you make the paneer, you can stash it away for a few days.

Stage 2: Roasting the greens

Before we start, here is what we will need:

  • 2 medium or large poblano peppers
  • 1 head of garlic, wrapped in a foil with a teaspoon of water
  • 2 leeks
  • 6 tomatillo

In a pre-heated 400F oven, shove in poblano, tomatillos, whole head of garlic and leeks for 25-30 minutes. The leeks should be carefully rinsed to remove any dirt, the green parts separated from the whites, the whites cut into half longitudinally for better browning. The poblano peppers can be left whole or cut in half. The tomatillos skin should be taken off and the tomatillo rinsed, but otherwise left intact.

Once done roasting, cool and removed skins from poblanos and tomatillos.

Stage 3: Putting it together

Before you start, here is what you will need:

  • A large bunch of fresh tender spinach leaves, washed
  • A large bunch of fresh tender lacinato kale, washed, separate any hardy stems
  • Stems of a large bunch of cilantro, reserve the leaves for another use
  • 1-2 dried red chili
  • 4 tbsp butter or ghee (aka clarified butter)
  • Salt
  • Previous roasted vegetables from stage 2
  • Paneer from stage 1

Take the roasted leek greens and kale stems, add 6 cups of water and boil gently for 30 minutes. Strain the broth. Add spinach and cook for 30 minutes. If you are not sensitive to the oxalic acid in spinach, you can cook for a shorter time. Add kale and cook for another 15 minutes.

Squeeze the roasted garlic out of the cloves and blend together with roasted leek whites, poblano peppers, spinach, kale, cilantro stems. Add as much broth as you would need to make a thick cake batter like consistency for the puree. Add 4 of the tomatillos and taste the puree. Add the remaining two tomatillos if their sourness is not overwhelming. You may want to adjust salt at this stage.

In a large pot, melt 4 tbsp of butter/ghee, break the red chili peppers and toast them lightly. It is possible to modulate their heat down by nicking them instead of breaking them. Add the green puree. Cook for 10-12 minutes to blend the flavors. Add the chopped paneer blocks. Adjust salt to taste. You can keep this for a day or two.


Serve with cooked parboiled rice. I like to cook my rice like pasta – plenty of water and then draining the water out. This makes for perfectly cooked rice every time. To round this out, you can put together a plate of salad with fresh cucumbers, sliced red onions, and tomatoes. The red onions balance out the rich saag-paneer dish. Sprinkle with lime juice and flaky salt. Also toast some pappadam.

Written by Som

June 9, 2020 at 8:07 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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