Let's start with a definition. I've long been confused by the distinction between palak paneer and saag (or sag) paneer. Both appear to the uneducated Western eater (that's me) to be spinach in spices mixed with cubes of a simple cheese.
Saag paneer is apparently made with "green leaves such as spinach, mustard greens and fresh fenugreek leaves", while spinach all by itself is a palak paneer. If anyone has more insight on the proper distinction between these dishes, please leave a note in the comments.
As I noted yesterday, palak paneer is the one dish we always order when we go to an Indian restaurant. Inspired by Meg's posts from last week, I picked up a copy of Lord Krishna's Cuisine: The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking by Westerner turned Vedic disciple Yamuna Devi. The paneer cheese I posted yesterday (and which we'll use today) is based on techniques in this book, as is the palak paneer recipe for today. I haven't made much from the cookbok yet, but I've been impressed by it. This is an Ayurvedic Indian cookbook so onions and garlic are not used in any of the recipes. I love garlic and onions, but from what I've seen and tasted so far, they aren't missed.
I don't personally subscribe to the philosophy of Ayurveda, but I know good recipes when I see them. So did Julia Child and Deborah Madison whose praise for Devi's book adorns the back cover. Lord Krishna's Cuisine is not a book for the timid or complete beginner cook, and you must really read each recipe start to finish before beginning. If you can handle a knife, follow a recipe well, and have made some relatively complex recipes Devi's book is well worth picking up.
Here's a slightly modified recipe from the book for Palak Paneer. Pay close attention to the tablespoons and teaspoons as there are many fractional measures of spices.
Palak Paneer from a recipe by Yamuna Devi
Paneer (simple cheese) made from about 1/2 gallon of whole milk - recipe here, cut into 1/2" cubes.
2 10 oz. packages of frozen spinach, defrosted and moisture sqeezed out, or two and half pounds of fresh spinach, wilted, chopped and moisture squezed out.
4 tablespoons of the whey from the paneer making (See, I told you we'd use some of that whey!) Substitute water if no whey is available, but be just a little sad.
2 small green chiles (serranos or jalapenos), chopped fine
1/2 tablespoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon tumeric
1/4 teaspoon paprika
thumb sized piece of ginger, peeled and diced
6 tablespoons ghee or butter. Use ghee (a clarified butter) if you can. You can make it from scratch if you'd like to better feel the connection to the food, but if you have an Indian market in your area, it's much easier just to buy ghee.
3 tablespoons heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon garam masala, a South Asian spice mix. You can make it yourself, but again, it's easier to buy it pre-made.
1/2 teaspoon salt
Cover a dinner plate with paper towels.
Using a small blender or the blending attachment to your immersion blender, combine the chiles, ginger, whey/water, coriander, tumeric, cumin, and paprika and blend in pulses until smooth. Set aside. This is the "spice blend" we use later.
Heat the ghee in a big saucepan until it is hot but not smoking. You should smell a "thick" smell from the ghee. Add the panir cheese cheese to the ghee and fry for 5 minutes or so, turning the cubes so they get browned lightly on all sides. Remove the cheese from the ghee with a slotted spoon to the plate covered with a paper towels for blotting.
CAREFULLY add the spice blend to the hot oil. You're adding a watery compund to an oil, something you really don't want to do much so watch yourself. Slide it in from the edge of the pan and be wary of splatters. Stir the oil and spices together then add the chopped, drained spinach. Cover and lower heat. Cook for 8 minutes.
After eight minutes, add the panir, salt, garam masala, and cream and stir together. Cook another 5 minutes on low to heat everything through.
Serve with simple basmati rice and Indian wheat poori bread. I'll post the poori bread tomorrow - in taste and preparation, it's a real crowd pleaser.
If the palak is the only dish you're serving, then between this and the rice and bread you should be able to serve two VERY hungry people with some leftovers or four moderately hungry ones from this recipe.
I label this the "First Version" of Palak Paneer because I felt the final dish was a little too oily for my tastes, and while I liked the golden fried cheese on its own I felt it was inappropriate when mixed with the spinach. The recipe is delicious and you should make this version at least once, but I'm going to try to re-engineer the recipe to make it a little lighter and something more like an everyday meal rather than a special treat.