Even though pretty much the only Indian dish I would eat throughout college was palak paneer (spinach and cheese), I had never seen paneer on its own until the morning that I set out to make extra room in the tiny communal freezer in my dorm at Cambridge. The entire freezer was jammed with bricks of what looked like tofu with Arabic writing on it. My quickly deteriorating Arabic skills led me to believe that the packages contained “pan-er,” which I naturally assumed was the Arabic word for tofu (nowhere in this line of thought did I stop to consider the frequency with which tofu appears in the food of Arabic-speaking countries . . . but to be fair, it was early, and I was cleaning out a freezer).
When I discovered a few weeks later that the Indian shops on the other side of Cambridge sold paneer by the pound, I finally sorted out that there was not, in fact, a freezer full of soy back at Wolfson (though I could never understand why someone on my corridor felt the need to hoard huge blocks of it) . . . in fact, I realized that, because of the popularity of Indian takeaway in England, the ingredients were widely available in conventional grocery stores, and I started buying paneer in little boxes at Tesco. Since I knew next to nothing about Indian cooking, I followed the recipes on the back of the box, which didn’t exactly produce authentic Indian food, but definitely tasted like authentic takeaway from the curry house down the road.
I cut the palak paneer recipe off the back of the box towards the end of my last month in England, but when I got back to the U.S., I found out that the exact same box of paneer that I could get for a few dollars at the British grocery store sold for $9 at Whole Foods. While it’s possible (and, some say, easy) to make your own paneer, I’m not the kind of cook who sets aside an afternoon for making cheese/butter/yogurt/tofu/seitan/any ingredient I can buy at the store which is just as good. So when I go to the Indian grocery store, I always get excited to be able to pick up some paneer and pull out the old recipe from the Tesco box.
[I know what you're thinking. Clearly, this is a self-imposed paneer shortage, since I informed you earlier in the post that paneer freezes well. Touche. Though once you try this recipe, you'll see that it's more of a "once-in-a-while" food, even though it doesn't have the same amounts of butter and cream that a restaurant version would have.]
Now, the produce store near me just started carrying fresh beans this past year, and it’s been a bit of a revelation. They sell peas and black beans and black eyed peas and chickpeas that look just like what you get in a can but are uncooked; I didn’t think it could make much of a difference, but after 15 minutes in boiling water, they’re some of the most amazing beans I’ve ever tasted. So when I saw even fresher chickpeas at the Indian market, I was really excited - they were still in their little green pods!
Even though I had no idea what exactly to do with them, I had to get them . . . and they made an amazing addition to the palak paneer – they were sweet, and tasted a little bit like peas on top of the chickpea flavor I was expecting. What surprised me was that the normal wisdom of vegetable selection was completely off in this instance: should you ever find yourself selecting fresh chickpea pods, instead of picking the ones that look freshest and greenest, go with the ones that look a little older and yellow to get the largest, most mature chickpeas. The best looking pods only contained tiny little seeds!
Traditionally, palak paneer doesn’t have any chickpeas in it, but I like the extra protein and body they provide. Feel free to leave them out – it won’t hurt the recipe – or toss in half a can if you can’t find any fresh ones. Also, since paneer is a very firm, mild cheese that takes on the flavors of the ingredients around it, tofu is an acceptable substitute if you can’t find or don’t want to use the cheese. Cubes of potato would also work.
loosely adapted from Clawson Paneer
8 oz. paneer, cut into small cubes
butter for frying
1 medium onion, chopped
1/2 tsp. black mustard seed (omit if unavailable)
1 clove garlic
1 inch cube of fresh ginger, chopped
1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
1 fresh tomato, chopped
1/4 tsp. turmeric
1/2 c. chickpeas (drained, if canned)
about 6 cups (packed) baby spinach
Heat the butter in a large frying pan. Fry the paneer until golden brown – about 2 minutes on one side, and then 2 minutes flipped. Put the paneer aside.
Add the onions to the same pan. Cook until soft and beginning to brown, about five minutes. Add the mustard seeds and listen until they begin to pop, adding more heat if necessary. Add garlic, ginger, and cayenne. Cook for one minute. Add tomato, turmeric, and a pinch of salt and pepper. Stir and cook another minute or until combined.
Add the spinach and chickpeas. Cover and cook on low until the spinach is completely wilted and the mixture is beginning to get dry – about ten minutes. Add the paneer. Stir, and cook five minutes more over low heat.
Garnish with red onion if desired. Serve with rice or naan.