Curry ingredients: spinach, tomato, green chile pepper, gram flour, chickpeas, ghee (clarified butter), onion, garlic, ginger, cumin, coriander, turmeric, garam masala, ground fenugreek seed, salt.
Rice ingredients: basmati rice, ghee, garlic, cinnamon, clove, cardamom, bay leaf, mustard seed, cumin seed, coriander seed, turmeric, salt.
Served with: paratha bread.
One of my culinary goals (life goals?) is to figure out how to make homemade Indian food taste like restaurant Indian food. I suppose that’s what I’m always trying to do in my kitchen: recreate a dish such that it tastes like the best time I paid for it.
Sometimes I throw in the towel. [No pizza oven, no pizza.]
Sometimes I’m so pleased with home results that I actively spread gospel for years afterward. [Hey all you Katz's fans, ever try to make your own corned beef? It's incredibly easy and totally foolproof.]
With Indian cuisine, I’ve had mixed results. Try as I might, I’ve never been able to make tikka masala sauce that matches the transcendent balance of flavors from House of India in St Louis, or from Khajuraho or Jaipur in Philadelphia. I don’t even wanna talk about it. Seriously, it’s depressing.
The dish that does seem to come out right, at least most of the time, is palak paneer. This is fortunate, as it happens to be my second-favorite (behind tikka masala). In fact, I often ordered palak paneer before becoming a vegetarian. That says something, doesn’t it?
Palak paneer production is a 4-part process. There’s the spinach curry itself; plus the chunks of fried paneer cheese mixed in; heaven-scented basmati rice; and some sort of bread, be it naan, roti, or paratha. I freely admit to cheating on the bread here. We often purchase frozen parathas that crisp up nicely on a griddle, so that’s what I used.
First, the cheese. Paneer is a blocky fresh cheese that browns rather than melts, much like halloumi. I make it myself by boiling a gallon of whole milk, then curdling it with the juice of a lime (lemon or white vinegar work too). I strain the curds from the whey using a cheesecloth, then press it between two plates and chill it overnight. Simple, delicious! Before incorporating it into my curry, I slice the paneer into cubes and pan-fry them in ghee (clarified butter). This last step is optional, but I love the crispy texture.
To make the rice, I begin by assembling the necessary spices. These need to be toasted quickly in a pan, which involves very little margin for error, as overly-burnt spices are offensively bitter. I use whole cumin seeds, whole coriander seeds, whole mustard seeds, whole cloves, whole cardamom pods, and a stick of cinnamon. Once the seeds begin to pop, I add a heaping spoonful of ghee, minced garlic, a bay leaf, turmeric powder, salt, and a cup of raw basmati rice. Toasting the rice itself adds a nice nutty flavor, though this step can be omitted by adding the 2 cups of water immediately. When the rice is cooked through and gets a chance to steam a bit, I try my best to remove the cinnamon, clove, bay leaf, and cardamom pods. Those are not fun to chomp into.
For the curry, I start by roasting green chilies. This time I used Cubanelles, but any somewhat-spicy variety will do. Chile peppers really bring out the mild flavor of the spinach, so I highly recommend making the effort. It’s also important to roast and peel them first, or else you will end up with tiny flecks of skin in your curry, almost as if you diced up a plastic bag and added that as well.
To the chilies, I add plenty of spinach, cook it down a bit, then liquefy with an immersion blender. When I make palak paneer, I like to use a mix of fresh and frozen spinach. The fresh leaves have a marvelously “green” flavor, but their consistency feels a bit too slippery in large quantities. This is easily remedied by mixing in an equal amount of thawed frozen spinach, which also cuts down on the cost.
In a separate pot, I sear up some sliced onions in ghee, then add a paste of mashed garlic and ginger. As this begins to brown, I sprinkle in fairly heaping quantities of cumin and coriander. This also needs to brown, but takes very little time, and is important not to burn completely. When I see smoke begin to appear, I dump in a can of diced tomatoes and let the mixture reduce over low heat, for about 10 minutes. Then I add the spinach, plus hefty pinches of garam masala (premixed Indian spice blend), turmeric (mostly for color), and ground fenugreek seed (for a pleasant earthy depth).
The last step is to thicken up the curry, which can be done in a few ways. In the past, I’ve used ground cashews. This time I used ground dry-roasted chickpeas (also called gram flour, though I could not find this for sale and thus grinded my own). I was very pleased with the results. My palak paneer was just thick enough to retain its shape on a plate, and the chickpeas enhanced rather than distracted from the overall flavor.
I’m not going to pretend that this is a simple, easy process. However, until I find myself within the delivery perimeters a good Indian restaurant, palak paneer will remain a homemade favorite.