Palak Paneer ♭

While in London in November of 1984 giving a series of lectures on software economics, I learned that the English have a penchant for Indian cuisine. I remember having dinner one night in a particularly posh instance and noticed that a number of their vegetarian specialties were made with--of all things--cottage cheese. Well not just plain cottage cheese, but a somewhat firmer form they call paneer. I remember ordering a side dish of paneer and spinach, or palak, from their menu and being very pleased by my choice. I remember thinking, I’ve got to try this when I get back home! But that was many years ago, before the internet and Google, and as I had no source of Indian recipes at hand, I completely forgot all about it.

Recently, however, I happened by chance to stumble across a commercial version of it on a shelf at my local Von’s supermarket. Suddenly I was reminded of that meal so many years before. The store’s version was made with turmeric rice, which I did not want, so I immediately searched for recipes of the dish, of which I found many. I found that paneer is avalilable from a number of Indian markets in the San Diego area, but sources report it is okay to use ricotta cheese or even tofu.

The recipe below is an Americanized version that I think captures the essence of the Indian delicacy. I have made some omissions and substitutions in order to keep things on the lighter side. Traditionally, for example, palak paneer is made with heavy cream instead of the fat-free sour cream I call for. Also, I have reduced the piquancy to a milder level. The dish is usually accompanied by basmati rice and an Indian bread called naan. I have omitted these to reduce the carb count.

  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped finely
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 1 serrano chile, seeds removed, minced
  • ½ tsp garam masala
  • ½ tsp fenugreek
  • ½ tsp ground cumin
  • ½ tsp ground coriander
  • ½ tsp turmeric powder
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 tsp fresh grated ginger (or ginger paste)
  • 1 tomato, chopped
  • 1 (10 oz) package frozen chopped spinach
  • ½ cup water
  • ¼ cup fat-free sour cream
  • 1 cup paneer (or ricotta cheese or tofu), in ¾” cubes
  • ½ cup cilantro leaves
  • 2 tbsp clarified butter (optional)

Heat the oil in a large sauce pan over medium high heat. Sauté the onion, garlic, and chile until just soft.

Add the garam masala, fenugreek, cumin, coriander, turmeric, bay leaves, and ginger to the pan, mix well, and sauté for 2-3 minutes to bring out the flavors. Add the tomato, mix well, turn off the heat, and let it continue to cook another minute or so as the flavors blend together.

Thaw the spinach in a large bowl in the microwave. Move it into a sieve and press out the excess liquid. Add the spinach, sour cream, and water to the pan mixture, raise the heat and cook over medium heat for about 10 minutes until the spinach is done. Remove the bay leaves.

Transfer the mixture to a blender or food processor, pulse a few times to reach a smooth, but textured consistency (not puréed!).

Return the mixture to the pan, add the paneer, cover, and simmer for a few minutes minutes until everything is warmed throughout. Fold in the clarified butter and cilantro and serve.

Serves 4-6.