Sunday, 24 May 2015

Sag paneer

Sag aloo (aloo = potato, remember) is one of my always-orders for Indian food (and if you're in Oxford, you should be going to the Standard Tandoori, which is a marvellous story that shall be told another time, but trust me, ignore the name, and just go) and another one I figured was unreplicable at home... nope, not at all. Quite easy to make. But as I usually have the aloo served up in aloo gajjar, and paneer is basically cheese (cheese... CHEESE... CHEESE...!) , sag paneer is now one of my always-makes for curries. Or just sag, if we don't have paneer. (Paneer, I should add, is cheese, quite mild-tasting, white, often comes already cubed, and I buy it from the Indian grocers aka the spice shop. You can also make it but I haven't learnt how yet.)

Sag actually just means "greens", which could be spinach or not; palak means spinach specifically. So most of the year round I'm making palak paneer, but occasionally, when the season and the stars are right, it's most definitely sag paneer, because I'm using this:


Photo taken on a spring greens foraging course with Hedgerow Harvest - James, the chap who runs it, is brilliant, and you should go if you can.

GROUND ELDER! Bane of gardeners and joy of cooks! The Romans brought it over as a vegetable, it flourished gloriously here, and then somehow we forgot it was a vegetable and we could eat it, and we just kept chucking it on the compost heap and bemoaning it. It's very similar to spinach but actually better in several respects. First - obviously - it's free and almost impossible not to grow. Witness the garden bed at the front of our house:


I say almost impossible not to grow.  With enormous dedication, and to my dismay, and over my protests, Will has managed to stop it growing. But he's found an old ceramic sink that I can plant it in, he says, because not even ground elder can grow through ceramics, he says, and that way it won't drown everything else. He says. But he's a vegetable murderer, so I wouldn't necessarily take his word for it. (He's just this minute walked in to tell me that the ground elder is up again, and not to eat any of it, because he's poisoned it. It's not just the ground elder that fears for its life.)

Other advantages over spinach (if Will doesn't murder it first): it doesn't collapse down as much (the way a big bag of baby spinach leaves disappears into about half a cupful of matter within a few quick stirs in a pan), it keeps more texture (very young spinach just goes a bit slimy when it's fried), and it doesn't leave that odd powdery sensation on your teeth that spinach usually does. Ground elder is perfect for sag paneer (and also for spanakopittas). (Here's a spotter's guide if it's new to you.)

The collapsing and sliminess of spinach, though, is mostly to do with using baby spinach leaves, which are really for salad and not for cooking, but appear to be the only form you can find spinach in these days. I remember spinach coming as great big dark green bitter leaves, larger than a romaine lettuce, with hard central veins that we cut or tore out. That's adult spinach. Finding even adolescent spinach is hard, it seems, but my beloved spice shop & Indian grocers stocks it. It needs a good proper wash, naturally, and here it is, ingeniously drip-drying, without taking up valuable counter space:


I hated spinach as a kid, and even as a teenager, but by the time I was at uni I'd discovered my iron deficiency, so I dutifully ate vast quantities of the stuff, until eventually I came to not mind the flavour too much, especially as eggs florentine (with a poached or soft-boiled egg on top). Then it turned out that spinach wasn't even high in iron, that was a myth based on someone misplacing a decimal point in the 1930s or somesuch time, so I'd chowed down all those bowlfuls to no avail, and could stop if I wanted, except that now I do actually like it. (Apparently you need 10-15 exposures to develop a new taste, and spinach got well over that.) And now it turns out that that myth is itself a myth, and spinach is high in iron, but it also contains oxalic acid, which inhibits iron absorption. Apparently eggs also inhibit iron absorption, so myth-myths notwithstanding, all those eggs florentine were probably contributing to my not being able to get out the bath in one go without fainting, rather than helping, after all.

Anyway. Onwards to palak paneer! Actually the photos here are just palak, as we didn't have paneer, and again I don't have a cast-photo of the ingredients, and some of the other photos will be suspiciously familiar to the eagle-eyed among you, because I was cooking a lot of dishes in that particular session, and photographing them all simultaneously. I usually make this fresh every time, but if I'm putting paneer in, then sometimes I'll make extra for the freezer. (It doesn't seem worth freezing just the sag, when it's quick to make.)

Download the recipe

Your glorious (but regrettably invisible) ingredients are... 6 tablespoons ghee, 2 teaspoons cumin seeds, 1 teaspoons mustard seeds, 6 cloves of garlic, 1 onion, finely chopped, 300g paneer, 300g spinach leaves, 2 teaspoons garam masala, 1 bunch of fresh coriander leaves. If you don't have paneer, and you're just making sag, halve all the other ingredients. Or double the amount of spinach, which is what I did. And yes, the printable recipe triples these quantities, because it's assuming you're going to freeze batches, or be serving 12 people.


The onion. Hmm, yes... Earlier I told you that the basil leaf marked the right-hand onion as destined for a luxurious dahl. Turns out I lied, and it's actually a very small spinach leaf. That onion is for palak paneer. As I said, I was making about four dishes simultaneously, and photographing all of them.


Chopping the onion nice and fine, using the magic chef's onion trick.


And the garlic (again with that deceitful leaf - I was so proud of my leaf idea! I thought it was infallible!) needs the chef's garlic-peeling trick, plus crushing (or mashing with salt and a fork, if you don't have a garlic crusher).


The onion and garlic are ready to go. I usually do this early in the evening, to get the schleppy bit out the way, because the actual cooking only takes about 5 minutes, just before you eat.


But never sit down before you've washed the garlic crusher. I think they make superglue out of garlic.


When you're just about ready to eat, and everything else is cooked, and out the oven to rest, melt the ghee (or oil, if you're vegan or still don't believe me about ghee), in a large frying pan, pretty hot.


Line up the cumin and mustard seeds, with a teaspoon. And the blinding light of incoming UFOs.


2 teaspoons of cumin, 1 of mustard seeds, and let them fry until the mustard seeds start doing their tiny-popcorn thing. It's incredibly cute, but they tend to fly out the pan, so as soon as a few start popping, you can add the next thing, which is...


The garlic, swiftly stirred round to break up the clumps, and followed promptly by...


The onion.  You'll only give this two to three minutes, rather than the usual forever and a day, but I've still turned the heat right down as that middle ring is insane. That's actually about medium heat, by normal measurements. After a few minutes...

If you're using paneer, this is the point to add it, and give it a minute or so to fry and heat through, and then...


The weird magic bit where you try to cram as much spinach as humanly possible into the pan,  and it won't even fit, but very quickly it'll start vanishing and collapsing down. Sometimes I throw in one lot, let it collapse a little, and then the rest. I appear to be using baby leaves here, even though I showed you adolescent spinach earlier - I think the adolescent spinach is underneath, and I was using up the last of some baby leaves, on top. If you're using lots of coriander stems, you can chuck the stems in at this point too, roughly chopped.


As you fold it and try to stir it without scattering spinach all over the stove, it quickly collapses, so as soon as it starts doing that, you can switch off the heat, and throw in...


Two teaspoons of garam masala, and...


all your lovely fresh coriander leaves. Usually this is just used as a generous garnish, for most curries, but it's a major ingredient in this dish.


Voila, all that spinach that wouldn't fit the pan has collapsed down dramatically!


Uncannily familiar, isn't it?! Sag, Balti madras, aloo gajjar, and rice. Perfect rice.

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