I have got two things in common with Popeye the sailor-man – I share his love of olive-oil and spinach…
Learning to appreciate olive-oil did take me some time; spinach on the other hand, I have loved for as long as I can remember. A spinach dish that I could probably overdose on is North Indian palak paneer; a creamy spinach gravy with pieces of fried fresh cheese in it.
Strangely enough, whenever I have Indian food at a restaurant outside India, I almost never pick palak paneer from the menu as there is almost always something else poking my attention.
That’s how I decided to domesticate this dish and so I have cooked up a somewhat lighter, albeit heart-warming, version made with oat-based cooking cream and tofu.
The original version is made with pureed fresh spinach. I have not had the occasion to go to the market yet, so instead I have used whole frozen spinach leaves, cut in smaller pieces as necessary.
If you are using fresh spinach, wash it and cut it in several parts, removing any stems that look woody. The same weight of fresh spinach will of course be greater in volume, so first steam it on low heat in a pan, with a couple of tablespoons of water until it has reduced in size.
A part from the spicing, the secret to this dish is the slow roasting of the onion which should be completely softened before the spinach is added. The aroma and texture of half-done onion is a spoiler. The onion should beautifully blend in with the spinach.
Palak paneer is the happy matrimony between spinach and paneer cheese where dairy cream plays the role of a catalyst. You may not eat dairy, or have difficulties in getting hold of paneer. You can substitute the latter with a haloumi-type cheese if you are not inclined to use tofu. Oat cream gives a very nice body to the dish, and if you are coeliac and vegan, you will go for glutenfree oats. I have not tried soy cream; I think it would be an overkill to have tofu and soy-based cream in the same dish.
Also, I have used my homemade ghee for a more original taste, but if you are cooking 100% plantbased, choose a neutral-tasting oil, such as rapeseed.
Last but not least, garam masala which literally means hot spice, is an aromatic blend of spices. I have made my mix myself by slow-roasting cumin and coriander seeds, cinnamon bark, chili, pepper, cardamome grains and cloves in a pan and processing them to a fine powder with a mortar and pestle. You don’t have to go all DIY though – you can easily get hold of garam masala at the grocery store!
- 300-400 g spinach frozen or fresh
- 1 small onion
- 250 ml oat cream
- 200 g tofu
- 1 tbsp ghee or rapeseed oil
- 1 small tsp garam masala
- 1 small tsp cumin seeds
- 1 pinch of asafoetida (if you can get hold of it)
- 1/2 tsp turmeric
- 1/2 tsp red chili flakes or to taste
- 1 tsp coconut sugar
- 1/2 small tsp salt
- 2 garlic cloves
- a 2 cm piece of ginger
- 1/2 small tsp ground black pepper
- If using frozen spinach place the spinach in a bowl and let it thaw.
- If using fresh spinach, wash it, remove woody stems and cut it in small pieces. Place in a pan on slow heat with a couple of tablespoons of water and steam until it softens and reduces in volume. Set aside.
- Finely chop the onion.
- Grate the ginger and garlic and mix them. You want two big teaspoons of the garlic and ginger paste.
- Heat up the ghee in a skillet and add the cumin seeds.
- When the seeds start spluttering/popping, add the onion and stir well.
- Lower the heat and slow roast the onion until it it's golden and soft (in my world this takes 20-30 min).
- Add the ginger/garlic paste and bake for a couple of minutes until the raw smell disappears.
- Add the pinch of asafoetida and then the pepper, turmeric and chili.
- Finally add the spinach, the sugar and the salt and stir.
- After a couple of minutes add the cream and let simmer on low heat until the spinach is cooked and the gravy has thickened.
- Before serving, slice the tofu and fry it in a little bit of oil until golden; cut in cubes and top the gravy.
- I differentiate between the small and regular size of teaspoons. Teaspoons can differ quite a lot in size! For the garlic-ginger paste I am using my regular teaspoons for example, and for the other spices I am mostly using my small teaspoons that would probably be the equivalent of half a regular teaspoon.