Admittedly, I consider Indian food one of my weakest areas as a chef. There is something intimidating about combining spices that don’t show up frequently in your day to day cooking. A few years ago, I checked out half a dozen Indian cookbooks from the library and tried to absorb as much from them as I possible could. As with most cuisines, there are more variations among Indian recipes that anyone could ever imagine, so I relied on what I’m best at: starting with a basic understanding of technique and making a recipe my own.
This is my version of the classic dish Palak Paneer, a pureed spinach curry with chunks of cheese added for tanginess and texture. This is probably the tenth time I’ve attempted this dish in the last few years, and it turned out beautifully. I chose sweeter spices for flavoring because I love how they pair with the spinach, and I’ve added red chard along with its beautiful, ruby-colored stems. I substituted one of my favorite local cheeses for the paneer, but any mild, soft, farmer’s-type cheese would work well. I think this would also be delightful with mild, white cheese curds, which just may be what the dish was originally based upon.
Palak Paneer with Red Chard:
3 Tbsp. ghee
1 small onion, small dice
1 Tbsp. ginger, minced
1 Tbsp. garlic, minced
2 tsp. garam masala
2 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. ground cardamom
¼ tsp. ground cloves
½ tsp. chili powder
½ C. canned, diced tomato with juices
1 16 oz. bag frozen, chopped spinach
1 large bunch red chard, leaves roughly chopped and stems finely chopped
¼ C. heavy cream
¼ C. yogurt
1 & ½ C. cheese cubes or curds
In a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat, melt the ghee. Add the onions, and saute for about 5 minutes or until very soft. Season with salt. Once soft, add the ginger, garlic, and the chard stems (not the leaves) and fry for 1 – 2 minutes, or until the garlic becomes fragrant. Add all of the spices and stir to combine, allowing them to toast a bit in the pan, no more than one minute. Add the tomato and allow the juices to deglaze the pan, stirring to pick up any bits that may be stuck to the bottom.
Add the spinach and chard to the pan and sprinkle with salt. Place the lid on the pan and allow to steam for about 5 minutes. Uncover and stir well to combine all of the ingredients. If anything is starting to stick to the bottom of the pan, add a few tablespoons of water to help keep things moist. Cover again and cook for about 15 minutes total, stirring at each 5 minute mark and adding more water if necessary.
Once all of the greens are very soft and have lost their bright green color, reduce the heat to low. Scoop out roughly half of the mixture and transfer it to a food processor or blender. Add the cream and yogurt, and puree until smooth. Transfer the pureed mixture back to the pan and stir everything together to combine. Now is the time to taste and adjust the seasonings if necessary. You can also add more liquid (water, broth or cream) to the pan if you prefer the dish a bit on the thinner side.
Lastly, add the cheese to the pan and stir so that the heat from the curry just begins to soften it. Serve with any manner of interesting Indian breads, with steamed rice, or with my Bombay Potatoes.