I've never met anyone who didn't like palak paneer. Also known as saag paneer (palak and saag are both Hindi names for spinach), this classic menu item in Indian restaurants everywhere is a hit among both Indian food aficionados as well as novices. Something about the blend of creamy spinach with cubes of paneer (fresh Indian cheese) makes this dish supremely satisfying, especially with some warm naan, chapati or other Indian bread on the side. What's more, we all know that spinach is packed with nutrients and antioxidants (it wasn't Popeye's favorite for nothing!), making this dish a very healthy choice (albeit a bit rich)...
On weekend visits to Indian restaurant lunch buffets with my family while growing up, I always looked forward to eating palak paneer. My mom makes a delicious homemade variation, substituting cream cheese for the paneer and increasing the ginger. I love this version but miss the chewy chunks of paneer in it. The best solution, I decided was to take a classic palak paneer recipe (I chose my favorite Sanjay Thumma/Vah Chef's version) and incorporate into it my mom's addition of cream cheese (not readily available here in France, but the French St. Moret cheese makes a perfect substitute).
The result? The best palak paneer that I've ever had. Seriously. Better than in a restaurant! Try it and let me know what you think...
BETTER THAN IN A RESTAURANT PALAK PANEER
Adapted from Sanjay Thumma/Mom
1 pound (450-500 grams) fresh spinach leaves, washed
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 stick cinnamom
2-3 green cardamoms
1 bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
1 onion, finely chopped
Salt, to taste
2 tablespoons ginger paste
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
1 tomato, chopped
1 teaspoon coriander powder
1 teaspoon cumin powder
Chili powder, to taste
1 teaspoon powdered fenugreek leaves
2 green chillies, chopped
250 grams paneer, cubed and microwaved for 30 seconds to soften
2 tablespoons cream cheese
1/4 cup creme fraiche or heavy whipping cream (optional) - note: my mom uses ground cashew or almond powder instead!
1. Cook the spinach very quickly (about 2 minutes) in a large vat of boiling water, uncovered. Drain, wash and pulse in a blender or food processor (work in batches if you have to) until the spinach is liquified.
2. Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the cinnamon stick, cloves, cardmoms, bay leaf and cumin seeds. Stir well.
3. Once the cumin seeds start to pop, add the minced garlic. Stir and add chopped onion and a bit of salt (the salt will help the onions to cook faster!). Once the onions are translucent and slightly brown, add the ginger paste and mix well. Then add the turmeric, chopped tomato, coriander and cumin powders, chili powder to taste, powdered fenugreek leaves and chopped green chillies. Mix everything well and cook thoroughly until the tomatoes dissolve.
4. Remove the cinnamom stick, bay leaf, cardamoms and cloves and process the tomato-onion-spice mixture in a food processor in order to obtain a smooth paste.
5. Return this paste to the saucepan and add the spinach. Mix well, adding a bit of water if necessary.
6. Add the paneer cubes and stir well. Slowly incorporate the cream cheese and cream (if using) and mix everything well. Delicious!