Author Notes: I’ve spent the last 5 years travelling regularly to India for business and often find myself daydreaming about the wonderful curry we might enjoy for lunch instead of focussing on the business meeting at hand! Palak Paneer is a hearty but healthy Indian curry where spinach (palak) is the main event rather than the side dish. Paneer is a dense Indian cheese that is salty and subtle and creates lovely contrast to the soft spinach. You can substitute Halloumi if you can’t find it. This curry is elegantly fragranced and flavoured by whole spices as well as ground and a tablespoon or two of cream, swirled in right at the end, adds a touch of luxury. It quicker to prepare than most curries and you can swap spinach for any dark leafy greens such as kale, cavelo nero or swiss chard. Digging into a steaming bowl of Palak Panner accompanied by nutty brown rice is my idea of health and happiness in gloomy January!
I pestered many a chef for ingredients and cooking tips during my stays in Mumbai and New Delhi which inspired me to create my own recipe for Palak Paneer, in no way authentic I’m sure. Many recipes call for Garam Masala, which just means a blend of ground spices, mainly cumin, coriander, cardamom and pepper. Every Garam Masala, whether shop-bought or home-made, will be different, so I’m prescribing specific quantities of spices here so it will taste delicious every time.
Serves 4-6 (along with rice or indian bread)
- 3 pounds dark leafy greens (1.4kg - I used half spinach and half kale)
- 8 ounces paneer (225g - substitute halloumi cheese if paneer is unavailable, or leave it out to make the dish vegan)
- 1 white onion, finely chopped either by hand or in a food processor
- 1 tomato, skinned, deseeded and chopped finely
- 2 cloves garlic, finely minced
- 2 teaspoons fresh ginger, finely minced (about 15g/0.5oz)
- 2-4 tablespoons fresh cream, optional
- 2 tablespoons coconut oil, or other oil such as sunflower/groundnut/canola
- 2 tablespoons oil for frying the paneer (any oil you like)
- ½ cinnamon stick (about 4cm / 1.5 inches)
- 4 whole cloves
- 3 green cardamom pods, crushed with the back of a knife to release seeds
- 1 black cardamom pod, left whole
- 1 teaspoon whole cumin seeds (or 1 teaspoon ground cumin)
- 1 tablespoon whole coriander seeds (or 1 teaspoon ground coriander seeds)
- ½ teaspoons fenugreek seeds (or ½ teaspoon ground fenugreek seeds)
- 2 teaspoons chilli powder – or as much or little as you like
- ¼ teaspoons freshly grated nutmeg (or ¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg)
- ¼ teaspoons ground black pepper
- 2 teaspoons sea salt or kosher – 1 teaspoon for the onions & another teaspoon to season the dish, or to your taste
- 1 teaspoon sugar or maple syrup
- Bring a large pot of water to a simmer over high heat. Plunge the spinach & kale into the water and cook for 1 minute only. Remove immediately to a colander set over a bowl to drain while you prepare the rest of the dish.
- (Optional step, skip if you’re using ground spices instead of whole) Heat a large saucepan over medium heat (with no oil) and toast the fenugreek, cumin and coriander seeds, turning regularly with a fork, until they become fragrant, about 3 minutes. You will start to smell their aroma when they are ready. Remove from the pan and grind them in a mortar and pestle. (or a spice grinder if you own one)
- In the same pan you used to toast the spices, heat the 2 tablespoons coconut oil over medium heat while you finely chop the onion. Add the cinnamon, ground coriander, fenugreek and cumin, cloves, and both cardamoms to the pan and fry for 2 minutes so they release their fragrant flavours. Add the onions and a teaspoon of salt and sauté until they become sweet, translucent and caramalised. About 15-25 minutes. You want them well cooked so they almost dissolve into the sauce.
- While the onions are cooking with the spices, skin and deseed a tomato by scoring a cross through the skin of the tomato, plunging it into almost boiling water for a minute, peeling off the skin, removing the seeds and chopping it.
- To the pan with the onions, add the ginger, garlic, tomato, and chilli powder and cook over medium heat until they tomato and onions have broken down into a sweet mush – about 5 minutes. Taste the tomato/onion/spice mix and if there is any bitterness add a teaspoon of maple syrup or sugar. Meanwhile, chop the spinach and kale finely by hand using a large knife and your best rocking-chopping action. Reserve some of the water that has drained from the greens, you might need it later.
- Add the spinach and kale to the pan and cook for about 3-6 minutes. At this point, fish out the whole spices with a fork – the cloves, cinnamon stick, and cardamom pods. Blend the spinach either using a hand blender or a freestanding blender until almost smooth. If you’ve used a freestanding blender, add the mixture back to the pan. Now you should gauge how much water you need to add. Young spinach contains more water than older leaves so if the sauce looks a little dry, add some of the water you collected from draining the spinach – I add about ¼ cup, depending on the type of greens I use. Add the cream and nutmeg and mix well to incorporate it into the spinach mixture. At this point, check for seasoning and add more salt, pepper and chilli powder to your taste.
- Finally, add 2 tablespoons oil to a separate pan over medium heat and fry the paneer for 1-2 minutes per side until golden, remove to a plate with kitchen paper to drain the excess oil, then add them to the dish.
- A final optional step: deep-fry finely sliced red onions in hot (180°C/356°F) oil in a deep-fat fryer or deep saucepan until crisp and brown. Drain on kitchen paper to remove excess oil and top the dish with these deliciously crispy morsels.
- This recipe was entered in the contest for Your Best Dark, Leafy Greens