Vegan Palak Paneer Will Turn Tofu Naysayers into Enthusiasts

August  6, 2015

Every other Thursday, Gena Hamshaw of the blog Choosing Raw shares satisfying, flavorful recipes that also happen to be vegan.

Today: Never have a bad experience with tofu again.  

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When I mention the word “tofu” in passing, I tend to get one of two very different responses. Half the people I’m chatting with will invariably proclaim their undying love of tofu and all things soybean. The other half will give me a skeptical raised eyebrow or even a look of defiance, as if to warn me that they will never, ever warm up to bean curd.

Tofu is one of those ingredients that’s easy to prepare badly, and most of us have had a crummy tofu experience at some point. If that happens to be your only point of reference, you might very well believe that tofu is an insipid “health food” ingredient, a bland and colorless block of flavorless mush. If you’ve had great tofu, though—really well seasoned, perfectly firm, expertly seared—then you know how versatile and delicious it can be. 

Compare the tofu pressed with a fancy gadget (left) to unpressed tofu (right).

One of the easiest ways to make firm tofu more appealing is to press it before cooking. Most firm and extra-firm tofu comes packed in water; taking just a few moments to press some of the excess liquid out can make a huge difference in texture. Firm tofu that hasn’t been pressed can be…well, not so firm at all. Pressed tofu, on the other hand, has the bite and chew that makes it so perfect for vegetarian grilling, searing, and stir-frying. 

Pressing is easy and doesn’t have to take a long time: You can buy a special gadget to do the work for you, but for the last eight years I’ve been placing my block of tofu on a plate, topping it with another plate, and topping the whole setup with a really heavy book (usually my copy of Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone). An hour is enough to create excellent, firm texture, but you can let the tofu press for up to twelve hours, or overnight. 

Place the tofu blocks between layers of tea towels or paper towels, then weigh them down with something heavy.

While pressing tofu is definitely my favorite preparation method, it’s not the only one. A lot of people like to freeze tofu in a plastic bag, then defrost it prior to cooking. This makes the tofu more spongy and porous. It’s really great for sopping up sauces and flavor, though I admit that it’s not my favorite preparation (I like the firmness of pressed tofu better).

If you’re relatively new to tofu, you should try both methods and see which texture you like more. It’s also worth saying that there are some people who prefer the moistness of un-pressed, un-frozen, unadulterated tofu. You don’t have to press or freeze before cooking—you just may appreciate the texture of tofu a little more if you do.

Crumble pressed tofu with your fingers to make a vegan—or non-vegan—tofu scramble.

This recipe for vegan palak “paneer” works wonders with a block of extra-firm tofu (which is what I buy most of the time—even the firm stuff is too mushy for me). First, the tofu is pressed. Then it’s marinated in a salty brine that contains nutritional yeast—a magical ingredient for creating cheesy flavor in non-dairy dishes. Finally, it’s baked till super-crispy, which makes it a perfect vegan substitution for paneer cheese. 

The resulting dish is richly spiced and deeply flavorful, and the tofu cubes are firm enough to hold their texture and shape in the vibrant green sauce. It might be the dish to serve to tofu naysayers—or maybe it’s just a new way for you to pay homage to the mighty soybean. 

Vegan Palak Paneer

Serves 4

For the tofu paneer:

One 14-ounce block extra-firm tofu
2 tablespoons lemon juice
3 tablespoons water
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons nutritional yeast

For the palak paneer:

10 ounces (about 8 cups) spinach leaves
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 poblano or serrano chili, seeds removed and diced
1 white or yellow onion, chopped
1 tablespoon grated or minced fresh ginger

3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tomato, chopped (about 1 or 1 1/2 cups, or you can use 1 can diced tomatoes, draining the excess liquid before adding them to the recipe)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon garam masala
1 teaspoon ground cumin
2 teaspoons ground coriander
Dash red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon lime juice
1/2 cup cashew cream or coconut milk
Basmati rice, for serving (optional)
Chopped cilantro or chopped green onions, for serving (optional)

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Tofu press picture by Bobbi Lin; all others by James Ransom 

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Gena is a registered dietitian, recipe developer, and food blogger. She's the author of three cookbooks, including Power Plates (2017) and Food52 Vegan (2015). She enjoys cooking vegetables, making bread, and challenging herself with vegan baking projects.


marynn August 6, 2015
Gena, I bow down before my new hero! Palak paneer is one of my all time favorite comfort foods, or at least it was right up until I looked at the nutrition label on the back of a Costco paneer brick. Waaaay too much fat and too many calories for this girl to justify. So your thoughtful re-imagining makes it possible for me to savor all the flavors without the caloric overload. Yo have no idea how very grateful I am for your creative and imaginative recreation. This gem makes it back into the lunch rotation for sure!
marynn August 6, 2015
Gena! I bow down before my new hero. Palak paneer is an absolute favorite comfort food of mine, or it was until I checked the nutrition label of a Costco paneer brick. Waaaay too high in fat and calories for this girl. So thank you for reimagining a deliciously sane option that puts this back in the lunch rotation. I am beyond grateful!