For the last couple of weeks I’ve had a craving for Indian food. Unfortunately for me, the closest Indian restaurant is about 45-60 minutes away. Luckily, during my last trip to Penzey’s Spices, I stocked up on a lot of Indian spices so I was ready to do what was necessary to saitate that craving. The first dish I made was Saag Paneer, a wonderfully spicy, yet subtle dish of cooked spinach with chunks of fresh, homemade cheese. This is a great dish that is perfect for introducing people to the joys of Indian cuisine. I find the end product to be very similar to that standard steakhouse favorite, Creamed Spinach, but its seasoning is a bit more exotic. Nor does it have the fiery heat that many people associate with Indian foods.

The first, and most difficult step in learning to prepare Indian foods is gathering up all the spices needed. You’ll be surprised you probably already have many of the spices you will need, such as cinnamon, clove, cumin, peppercorn, coriander and fennel, though it is best to have these as whole, instead of the ground that Americans most often buy. Add to that list mustard seed, whole green cardamon, turmeric and possibly Ajwain seed or fennugreek and you will have most bases covered. Of course, there are many more spices that you could go out and purchase if you really want to get deep into the cuisines of India, but the ones I have listed will cover most dishes.

The next thing you need to do is make up a batch of garam masala. Garam masala is a spice blend that is the workhorse of many Indian cuisines. Like BBQ rubs here in the US, there is no one single recipe for garam masala and each region and each household has it’s own variations. What I would suggest is finding a couple of recipes for garam masala and trying each of them. Not only will this allow you to discover the blend that you enjoy the most, but you’ll get a chance to see how different blends work better with different dishes. The one thing that garam masala is not is curry powder. That particular spice blend was a creation of the British meant to imitate the garam masalas of India. Curry powder always contains a large portion of turmeric (its what makes curry powder yellow) while no garam masala recipes I have ever come across contains that spice. The recipe I offer here is heavy on the spices that most Americans are familiar with so it is a great starting point for exploring the world of Indian spices, but again I suggest you do a little research and come up with your own blend that suits your tastes.

Garam Masala

2 Tbsp. coriander seeds
2 Tbsp. cumin seeds
1 ½ tsp. whole clove
2 Tbsp. black peppercorns
1/4 cup green cardamon, in the pod
1 1/2 sticks cinnamon

Place all the spices in a saute pan and set over medium high heat. Heat the spices, stirring and tossing often until the spices release their aromas and start to brown.

Immediately remove from the pan (so it doesn’t burn) and allow to cool completely. Grind the spices in either a mortar and pestle or in an electric coffee grinder that is used exclusively for grinding spices and not coffee. Sift through a fine mesh strainer, grind again and sift again. Placed in an airtight jar this spice mixture will stay good for 2-3 months, although I like to make sure I use it up within a month or so.

Now that the garam masala is made it’s time to make the cheese (paneer). Don’t worry. It’s not difficult. In fact making a fresh cheese like this can’t get much more simple. Basically all we have to do is boil some milk, add an acid and then collect and drain the curds that form. Sure it won’t be a beautiful aged cheddar or blue cheese, but its cheese none the less and tasty, if not a bit bland, in its own right.

will yield between 6-9oz. depending on your milk

1/2 gallon whole milk (do not use anything other than whole milk-no 2%, 1% or skim)
3-4 Tbsp. lemon or lime juice (or you can even use white vinegar)

In a large pot bring the milk to a boil. Add the lemon juice and remove from heat. Let sit for 5 minutes, gently stirring every minute or so. The curds should separate, leaving behind a clearish, greenish liquid (the whey). Strain the curds through a triple layer of cheese cloth and allow to drain for about 5 minutes. Gently squeeze out more of the whey then wrap the cheese in the cheesecloth, place in a pie pan and press it with a plate on top weighed down about 1 or 2 cans of canned vegetables. The cheese will be ready to use in about 1 hour although I like to make it the day before and chill it overnight to firm it up before cutting it.

The final thing that you will want to have on hand is ghee. Ghee is nothing more than clarified butter. To make ghee, gently melt a pound of butter in a sauce pan. Leave the butter over medium low heat and slowly the fat will clarify and rise to the surface, leaving the milk solids behind. Be careful not to let the milk solids burn as they have a tendency to stick to the bottom of the pan. Remove any foam from the surface and carefully pour off the butterfat, leaving the solids and any milky whey behind.

Now we are finally ready to make the Saag Paneer. It seems like its taken a lot of work to get to this point but the garam masala and the ghee you can use for many other dishes. So really the only thing we’ve had to do so far, for this dish alone, is make the paneer, which was pretty simple.

Doing research for this recipe, I had always expected that yogurt was used to give this dish its creamy texture, and while I found many recipes that used yogurt, I was surprised by the number of recipes I found that used 1/2 and 1/2 so that is what I have used here.

Saag Paneer
serves 4-6 as a side dish or 2 as a vegetarian main course

8oz. paneer, diced
2 packs (10oz each) frozen spinach,thawed
1 medium onion, peeled and chopped
4 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
1 1inch piece ginger, peeled and sliced
2 Tbsp. ghee, or butter
1 Tbsp. garam masala
1/2 cup 1/2 and 1/2

Place the onion, garlic and ginger in a food processor and process to a fine paste. You don’t have to puree it but it should be a very fine paste. Meanwhile melt the butter or ghee, in a large saute pan, over high heat. Add the onion mixture and cook for 3-4 minutes.

While that is cooking put the spinach in the processor and process until the spinach is finely chopped. Add the garam masala to the onion mixture and cook for 3 minutes longer. Add the spinach, lower the heat to medium and cook for 10 minutes.

Add the 1/2 and 1/2, allow to heat through and finally fold in the diced paneer. Heat 3-5 minutes longer to heat the paneer then serve. While this can be a main course, I like to serve it as side dish to accompany a spicy lamb dish such as Vindaloo.

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