Monday, October 12, 2009

Saag Paneer and the Wonder of Roasted Spice- by Jillian

For years, I've dreamt about making restaurant-quality Tikka masala at home. I've delighted in bowls of leftover channa masala smothered in raita, eating only the tiniest bites to make it last a moment longer. I've marveled in the mystery of perfect, warm naan. But I've always been too timid, too intimidated to commit to cooking my own Indian Food. And not McCormick's curry-powder-mixed-with-canned-coconut-milk-over-chicken but real, fragrant, authentic Indian food.

And Indian food presents itself just like that: a commitment. We think we need certain tools, big tandoori ovens, things like asafetida (a smelly resin that stinks up your whole house) and expensive saffron. It's scary, maybe a little overwhelming and causes people (like me) to say "oh...I'll try that recipe next week...." What we forget, though, is that Indian cooking evolved in kitchens that didn't even have countertop space.

Once you let go of that anxiety and let Indian food into your heart just once, it will never fail you. I recently learned what makes Indian food so satisfying, so delicious, so....exciting. It's the spices.

Do me a favor. Go into your kitchen and reach for your little bottle of cumin. You probably paid $3.69 for .90 ounces of it and its been in there for a year. Take off the cap and smell it. Does it smell like cumin? Do you even really know what cumin smells like? Do you think its still fresh?

Real Indian food depends on freshly roasted, freshly ground spices which only requires a heavy fry pan, and a morter and pestle, very cheap at World Market. For the recipe below, you only need to roast and grind two spices: cumin and coriander. It really doesnt take that long and whole spices (World market, Wegmans, or any other specialty food shop will have them for less than $2.00 a package) last longer because you use them as you need them.

The process is simple: heat a small fry pan for a few minutes on low heat and add your spices (1/4 cup at a time is a good amount). Start swirling the pan immedietly. For an 8" fry pan and 1/4 spices, you'll do this for about 4-6 minutes. First the spices will become fragrant. Then they will start to brown and a nutty, toasty smell will fill your nose. When you get to this point, stop and dump the spices onto a cool plate and let them cool. Then put them in your morter and start grinding! If you have a clean coffee grinder at home, it works faster (but DON'T use your coffee grinder for spices and coffee. Neither will taste good).

You'll be amazed! Coriander seed has a lemony smell. Cumin has a very clean scent. I'll bet you never knew that!

SAAG PANEER- (sent to me by Turi Nevin Turkel)

5 tbsp oil or ghee- may use canola, grapeseed or olive

1 cup chopped onion

1 tsp fresh minced garlic

1 inch ginger finely chopped or ground

2 tsp freshly roasted and ground coriander

1 tsp freshly roasted and ground cumin

1/2 tsp turmeric

1/2 tsp red chili powder

2 tsp Garam Masala (an Indian Spice blend available at almost any foodstore)

2 tsp dried metha leaves (fenugreek leaves- Metha will be the Indian name on a box)

1 green chili chopped...deseed for mild, use seeds for hot

1/2 tsp salt or to taste

14 oz petite diced tomatoes

1/2 cup plain yogurt

2 10 oz packages of frozen spinach, thawed

1 10 oz package of paneer (Indian cheese)*

* or the easy way to do this is to top your dish with a little cottage cheese for protein. Paneer is solid curds of milk protein with all of the liquids taken out. Cottage cheese is a close cousin. You can also just serve this over basmati rice or bread...its delicious on its own without the dairy!

1. Heat oil or ghee in heavy bottomed saucepan. Add onions, garlic and ginger mix and fry until golden brown.

2. Stir ground spices, salt and tomatoes. Cook until oil/ghee appears on the surface of the mixture.

3. Add the yogurt, green chili & spinach.

4. Cover saucepan and let simmer on medium-low heat for 10 min or until the spinach liquid has been absorbed. Stir each time you look into the pot. (can simmer longer)

5. To gain creamier quality you can puree about half of it in a blender and put it back to simmer.

I swear that the ground spices make all of the difference in the world. I don't think that I shall ever return to regular, sitting-in-the-spice-cabinet-for-two-years spices! Really!

(paneer, I tried to make it myself. Another post another day!)

Stick around for more Indian lessons to come: Thanksgiving this year is going to be Indian-themed and I'm heavy into testing recipes. I'm tired of cooking the same meal every year. Let's be thankful for cultural diversity and eat fun new foods!

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