Thursday, October 4, 2007

Creative Experiment: Low(er) Fat Saag Panir (Indian Creamed Spinach)

I never posted this recipe from the Indian Meal mainly because the book it comes from, the Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking, is a monster and, consequently, kind of hard to get onto the scanner. It's a very interesting read - it only suffers from a lack of pictures.

I've had mixed to bad results with the recipe. These are all related to consistency - the flavors are good enough that I keep coming back for another try. The first time, it was kind of oily. That was also my first-ever attempt to cook Indian at home, so there were other things going on, including making ghee from scratch with the baking method I mentioned before. I also took the recipe very literally and fried the panir by hand. I found later that you can buy fried panir frozen at the Indian market, thereby skipping that messy and oily step. Note that you can also buy fresh panir at the market as well, so you can fry it yourself if you want, but you don't have to make it. Fortunately, I figured that out before the first attempt.

I tried again for the dinner and it came out frighteningly stiff. I'm still not sure how, other than I may have simply added way too much cream cheese.

In either attempt, it was tasty, but seriously unhealthy. So, I figured I'd try to de-fat it as much as possible. My intent was to use just a bit of ghee (~1 tbl) to cook the spices and skip the cheese and cream entirely.

Well, that didn't work out so well.

As soon as I added the spinach I knew I was in trouble. I used thawed chooped frozen spinach from which I'd squeezed out the water, just like I have been instructed in every other recipe I've made that uses it. Right away, it was way too dry. So, after it cooked for about 8 minutes, as instructed, I stirred in 3 tbl of cream, just to loosen it up a bit. The flavor was a bit strong. This was because, without bothering to read the spinach package, I had doubled the seasonings assuming that my big bag of Goya frozen spinach was twice as much as what the recipe called for. Not. true. I tried adding only half, but it was a guess. To cut the flavor, I went ahead and added some frozen fried panir I had. The result was fine tasting, but not the lowfat creation I had envisioned.

Looking back, I think my big problem was squeezing out all of the water from the spinach.

Chopped Spinach with Panir Cheese

One of the most popular vegetable dishes in North India is palak panir sak. Every temple and household has its own variation. Sometimes it is made exclusively with spinach, and at others with mixed greens - spinach and mustard, collard, fenugreek or beet greens. Some variations attain notoriety by pureeing cooked spinach and simmering it with cream and fried panir cubes. Other renditions remain textured, matching equal amounts of fried cheese with buttery, wilted chopped spinach. It is a moist, succulent dish that is delicious with hot flatbreads. Bite-sized pieces of flat bread are used to scoop up bits of cheese and spinach. Try palak panir sak with Griddle-Baked Village-Style Corn Bread, Mixed Bean Salad with Fennel or chopped tomatoes with herbs and oil and Golden Pumpkin Toovar Dal Soup for a delicious, nutritious meal.

Preparation time (after assembling ingredients): 5 minutes
Cooking time: about 30 minutes
Serves: 5 or 6

1-2 hot green chilies, cut into pieces
1/2 inch (l.5 cm) piece of fresh inch ginger root, sliced
4 tablespoons (60 ml) panir whey or water
1/2 tablespoon (7 ml) ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon (2 ml) turmeric
1/2 teaspoon (2 ml) ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon (l ml) paprika
6 tablespoons (90 ml) ghee or nut oil fresh panir cheese (page 313) made from 6 cups (l.5 liters) milk, cut into 1/2-inch (l.5 cm) cubes (about 6 ounces/170 g)
2 pounds (1 kg) fresh spinach, washed, trimmed and finely chopped, or two 10-ounce (570 g) packages of frozen chopped spinach, defrosted
1/2 teaspoon (2 ml) garam masala
1 teaspoon (5 ml) salt
3 tablespoons (45 ml) cream or cream cheese, cut into small pieces

1. Place the chilies, ginger and whey or water in a blender or food processor bowl fitted with the metal blade. Process to a smooth puree. Add the coriander, turmeric, cumin and paprika and pulse to blend well. Set aside.
2. Heat the ghee or oil in a nonstick wok or 5-quart/liter saucepan over moderate heat until it is hot but not smoking. Gently add the panir cheese and fry for about 5 more minutes, constantly turning the cubes with a gentle hand, to evenly brown them on all able sides. (If you use a stainless steel pan, the cubes invariably stick to the pan and tend to easy spread apart.) When the cubes are golden brown, remove with a slotted spoon and set aside.
3. Carefully add the wet spice (masala) to the hot oil and then pack in the freshably spinach leaves. Reduce the heat slightly, cover, and cook for 8 minutes. Using two forks, turn the spinach over so that the cooked leaves on the bottom change places with the leaves on top. Cover and cook for another 8 minutes. (If you are using frozen, defrosted spinach, cook it for only a total of 8 minutes.)
4. Add the garam masala, salt, fried panir and cream or cream cheese. Cover and continue to cook for about 5 minutes. Stir well before serving.

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