Some time ago, we went to a little Indian takeaway restaurant to see if it was any better than the others that we had visited (short version – it wasn’t). When I say Indian, of course, I mean Bangladeshi… most of the take-aways are (over)run by Bangladeshi folks. No, I actually mean Bangladeshi men, because I’ve never seen any women working at any of these take-out/eateries (shall we just say “takeouteries”?), ever. Anywhere.
Anyway, the menu had palak paneer (translated to “spinach with cheese” for the edification of non-desi types) listed under side dishes, so we ordered it, as Pete likes paneer.
What we got, however, was as far away from paneer as… well, as cheddar cheese. Because that’s what it was – pureed spinach with over-melted (read crusty) cheddar cheese on top. It wasn’t inedible, but it also wasn’t paneer. When I questioned the server about this travesty of a North Indian dish, he actually insisted that it was what I’d ordered - spinach with cheese. Well, yeah. Technically, it was, I suppose… but it wasn’t paneer.
I wasn’t inclined to take it further with him because for one, Pete thought the dish was okay, and for two, it wasn’t like we’d paid through our noses for the meal… but of course I knew we’d never go back to that particular restaurant again.
A few weeks later, I went to our usual takeouterie for some plain naan (which they make really well). While I was waiting for my order, the restaurant guy engaged me in some idle chat, trying to get me to order some of their main dishes as well. When he recommended the palak paneer, I told him about our cheddar experience and he fell about laughing, calling his mates to hear all about it as well. They all wanted to know which restaurant we’d been to, but I decided not to fuel their gossip quite that much, so I was deliberately vague.
They had a terrific time laughing about my experience (which made me wonder why, as it wasn’t THAT funny! Or perhaps they were bored and this was their only entertainment for the week), but he recovered enough before I left to say to me: “Madam, this is why you should come only to our takeaway”.
What I thought was: “This is why I should make palak paneer at home” – but I didn’t say it to him. I went home instead, clutching my oven-hot plain naan.
And some considerable time later, I made palak-matar-paneer - which, translated into posh restaurant-speak for non-desi readers is “Lightly sautéed cubes of Indian cheese, cooked with fresh green peas and served in a mildly spiced, silky spinach gravy finished off with a swirl of fresh cream”.
Does that description make you want to lick your monitor screen, or at least your lips? :o)
Recipe for: Palak matar paneer
2 medium tomatoes, chopped (reserve two tbsp)
1 medium tomato, sliced
2 medium onions, sliced
4 cups baby spinach leaves
1/2 cup cooked fresh green peas
1 cup paneer, cubed
2 cloves garlic
3 fresh green chillies (or to taste), chopped
1/2 tsp garam masala
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp coriander powder
Salt to taste
2 tsp oil
1 tbsp coriander leaves, roughly chopped
A few tbsp cream for garnish (optional)
1. Heat 1 tsp oil in a pan and lightly fry the paneer pieces till they turn a pale gold. Drain and reserve.
2. Add the remaining tsp of oil to the pan and when it's hot, fry the chopped green chillies, cumin seeds and garlic for 30 seconds.
3. Add the sliced onions to the pan and fry till they turn soft and pale brown. Then add the chopped tomatoes and fry till they begin to turn mushy. Toss in a handful of spinach leaves, stir till they wilt, add another handful of leaves and continue till all the spinach is wilted.
4. Let the mixture cool for a bit, then blitz it in a food processor along with the remaining sliced tomato,
till it's a smooth puree. You wont need to add any extra water.
5. In the same pan, add the reserved 2 tbsp chopped tomatoes and fry them till they just begin to break down.
6. Add the spinach puree to the tomatoes in the pan, stir in salt to taste along with 1/4 cup water, and let the sauce simmer on medium heat for 5 minutes.
7. Toss in the paneer now and simmer the mixture for two minutes.
8. Add the cooked green peas and garam masala, stir it in.
Leave on the hob for a minute longer, then turn the heat off. Garnish with chopped coriander.
9. Just before serving, swirl some fresh cream into the gravy (if desired) and serve hot with rotis or jeera rice.