I had a hunch about palak paneer, and three restaurants here in the San Francisco Bay Area confirmed: It’s one of the most popular Indian dishes in the U.S.
Made from “palak” (spinach) and “paneer” (Indian cottage cheese), the dish is classified under the generic cluster of Punjabi food. It’s also called “saag paneer,” as “saag” means any cooked greens, and is generally eaten with naan, tandoori roti, or paratha.
With its popularity in mind, I began my mission.
My goal: Figure out the best palak paneer recipe. My strategy: Pore over recipe books, speak to two Punjabi women who can make it in their sleep, and then filter this newly-gained knowledge through my own experience to come up with a glorious recipe.
First, I went through Raghavan Iyer’s 660 Curries; Julie Sahni’s Classic Indian Vegetarian and Grain Cooking; Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cooking and World-of-the-East Vegetarian Cooking; and Jody Vassallo’s My Cooking Class: Indian Basics. Each recipe had a distinction that appealed to me for a particular reason.
- Raghavan Iyer prefers to keep spinach whole to provide textural interest and pan-fries paneer.
- Julie Sahni cooks spinach (unclear whether by boiling or sautéing) and pan-fries paneer pieces that are lightly dusted with flour.
- I could not find palak paneer recipe in the Madhur Jaffrey books and looked, instead, at the closest substitute: “saag aloo” (spinach with potatoes). Here, she uses frozen spinach, an alternative to bagged, pre-washed spinach.
- Jody Vassallo drops un-cooked paneer in her spinach purée.
But in the end, it came down to two main questions: to purée spinach or not, and to pan-fry paneer or not. When I made palak paneer in the past, I always puréed spinach and pan-fried paneer, but I was eager to find tastier—and easier—alternatives.
I tackled the spinach question first and started with Raghavan Iyer’s recipe, as it was the only one calling for fresh and un-chopped (whole) spinach. The flavor and aroma of the dry fennel seeds and the sublime, golden sheen of the overall dish were the best parts of his recipe. Plus, he skips the blending step (to purée the spinach), which saves time and makes cleanup easier.
Nevertheless I was missing the silky-smoothness of a spinach purée and decided that in my final recipe, I would purée spinach instead of keeping it whole.
Having made a conclusion on the spinach question, I thought about the paneer. In Julie Sahni’s recipe, I loved the idea of coating paneer pieces with flour (to ensure that the cheese doesn't disintegrate in the spinach). But I was keen on finding out what would happen if the paneer were not pan-fried. Jody Vassallo adds raw paneer pieces to spinach purée, but she does not elaborate on why, which left me still unsure about the paneer.
To refine my recipe, I decided to speak to home cooks who had grown up eating and making palak paneer. My contacts were Priya Sharma and Mridula Vasudevan, both of whom come from the Punjabi community of Delhi. They rattled off so many variations and nuances that by the end, my head was buzzing with ideas. That’s what I love about seasoned home cooks: Over the years, they prepare food for every possible situation, accommodate quirks, preferences, and idiosyncrasies, and, along the way, garner a fantastic repertoire of knowledge that chefs would kill for.
Generally, Mridula pan-fries the paneer while Priya does not, but both said that they had tried the alternative, too. And both agree that pan-frying paneer gives the dish a certain richness, which is ideal for parties and special occasions.
Here’s some other golden dust that Priya and Mridula dropped on me in the course of our conversation:
- For guests who don’t eat garlic and onions (many Indians abstain from these ingredients for religious reasons), palak paneer can be easily made without them, no problem.
- Add garam masala at the end.
- If you’re not pan-frying paneer before you add it in, make sure it cooks for 10 minutes at low heat in the spinach purée so that it can soak up the salt and flavors.
- Last but not the least, if you’re using store-bought paneer (or homemade paneer that’s been frozen), cook it in boiling water for 10 minutes. This step allows you to skip the thawing process and makes the paneer soft at the same time. However if your paneer is freshly made, you can skip this step.
And, finally, my own learnings from years of making palak paneer:
- Tomatoes are a must. In this dish, I find spinach to be an introverted vegetable that needs tomatoes to break out of its shell. Even in Sahni’s recipe, the absence of tomatoes brought forth a grassiness of spinach that was not appetizing.
- I found sautéing spinach (before puréeing) produced tastier result compared to boiling spinach.
- I didn’t “get” paneer for many years, and my store-bought paneer always, without fail, stuck to the pan when I fried it. Luckily, the solution was simple: **Paneer stuck to the pan because my oil was not hot enough.((
- Store-bought paneer is absolutely fine. Priya told me that even in India, where women make their own paneer often, it’s common to use store-bought for this application.
And so, the recipe for palak paneer, distilled from all the above Olympian efforts:
- 3 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
- 8 ounces fresh spinach, washed
- 6 to 8 ounces paneer (Indian grocery stores generally sell paneer in 12- to 14-ounce slabs)
- 5 to 6 black peppercorns
- 1 cardamom
- 2 cloves
- 3/4 cup diced red onions, about 1/2-inch pieces
- 1 tablespoon ginger, peeled and grated
- 2 medium garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
- 1 Thai chile diced (optional)
- 1 cup diced tomatoes, about 1-inch pieces
- 1 pinch sugar
- 4 teaspoons tomato sauce
- 3/4 to 1 teaspoons salt
- 1 teaspoon garam masala
- 1/4 cup cream or 1/2 cup milk (optional)
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