When the airborne fluff of cottonwood flowers floats on the sweet breeze of my hometown, it's my cue that the summer solstice is upon us, which means the crop of local spinach is near its peak. But as much as I love spinach, it can become a challenge to keep the fire burning for Popeye's little helper. That's when the other side of the world comes in handy. With a bit of knowledge and just a handful of ingredients from another hemisphere, the resulting infusion of exciting flavors will keep you eating your spinach with enthusiasm.
Specifically, I'm thinking of the northern Indian dish palak gosht, meat with spinach, for which the only ingredients that need to be imported are spices and ginger. Or the related dish palak paneer, spinach and cheese, which can similarly be made with only those imports. Palak paneer is similar to the Indian restaurant favorite saag paneer,; the main difference is that the saag version includes other greens, like mustard, in addition to spinach.
These two dishes are very similar, with the vegetarian version containing cheese instead of meat. In both cases the sauce is dark green, as if made from pure spinach, but is actually tomato-based, with the green from the spinach covering up the red of the tomatoes. These recipes use spinach in ways I don't often get around to, and learning to make them can be a good way to exercise my creativity in the kitchen.
The interwebs are full of recipes for both of these dishes, but as both can be found in my go-to cookbook for Indian cuisine, 50 Great Curries of India by Camellia Panjabi, I need look no further. Panjabi is a legendary chef and founder of a family of restaurants in London known as the Masala Zone. I picked up her book at the airport in Chennai, awaiting a plane-change en route to Kerala.
Indian recipes like Panjabi's can seem overwhelming at first, as they contain so many ingredients, mostly spices. But aside from their whirlwinds of flavor, the main ingredients are few and humble.
These recipes are edited slightly for space and clarity. Panjabi is a stickler for freshly ground spices, with the seeds being pan-toasted before grinding. It's a rule worth sticking to with Indian food.
Palak Paneer (Spinach with curd cheese)
¾ pint milk
½ cup yogurt
2 teaspoons lime juice
½ to ¾ lb. of spinach
2 jalapeños (or similar small green hotties), chopped
½ teaspoon chopped ginger
2 tablespoons cooking oil
Pinch of fenugreek seeds
1 onion, minced or grated
1 garlic clove, chopped
¼ teaspoon cumin seeds
2 tomatoes, puréed
For the cheese, carefully bring the milk to near-boiling, then add yogurt and a pinch of salt. Simmer for 7 to 10 minutes. Remove from heat, and allow to cool. Place a strainer over a bowl, and pour the milk through it. Press down on the curds with the back of a spoon to get the water out (or squeeze in cheesecloth).
For the spinach sauce, cook the spinach, ginger and jalapeños in a pan with a pinch of salt and a splash of water. Allow to cool, then purée in a blender.
Heat the oil in a pan on medium, then fry the fenugreek seeds for 30 seconds. Add the onion, and fry until translucent. Add the garlic and cumin seeds. Stir them around, then add the tomato purée. When the water from the tomatoes has evaporated and the sauce thickens, add the cheese curds and spinach purée. Stir it up and serve.
Palak gosht (meat with spinach)
1 lb. meat (lamb, mutton, beef or venison, as long as it’s red and tender)
1 minced onion
1 ½-inch cube of ginger
2 good-sized garlic cloves
2-3 jalapeños (or similar green chiles)
½ cup yogurt
¾ teaspoon freshly ground cumin
½ lb fresh spinach
¼ cup cooking oil
1 cinnamon leaf (optional, because, cinnamon leaf?!? Otherwise, use a bay leaf.)
1 cardamom pod (preferably a black cardamom pod)
½ teaspoon freshly ground coriander
3 tomatoes, finely chopped or puréed
Pinch of nutmeg (optional)
1 chunk of butter (optional)
Purée the ginger, garlic and jalapeños in a food processor. Add the yogurt and ¼ teaspoon cumin powder. Marinate the lamb in this for at least an hour, preferably overnight.
Blanch the spinach for 10 or so seconds in boiling water. Purée.
Heat the oil in a pan, add the cinnamon (or bay) leaf, cardamom and cloves. When the spices begin to brown, add the onions. Slowly fry until they start to brown. Add coriander and ½ teaspoon cumin powders. Stir, and add a splash of water.
Add the meat and marinade. The meat will release water as it cooks. When this moisture is nearly gone add the tomatoes, two cups water and a teaspoon of salt. Cover, and simmer on low until the moisture is again nearly gone. Add puréed spinach, and cook gently for five minutes. Sprinkle with nutmeg powder, and add a chunk of butter if desired.
Both of these can be served with rice or an Indian flatbread like parathas, roti or naan.