Saag Paneer-Inspired Greens and Feta
This first appeared in the CAFE newsletter, published in May 2021
Words and photos by Amanda Callahan of Callywood Farms, edited by Ellie Sharp
Back when I was in graduate school at the University of Denver, my apartment was just around the corner from this little Indian place. As a born and bred Southern girl, I had never experienced Indian food but after one dinner there I was hooked. I spent a lot of money at that little Indian place, and I vowed to learn how to make my favorites at home. Armed with the Internet and books, I started ordering spices online and referring back to my remembered tastes of the restaurant to re-create dishes.
Once we moved to South Carolina, I had to adapt recipes to our garden and native species: I make a mean masala with crowder peas in place of the usual chickpeas, and my family enjoys many delicious vegetables in curry sauces with okra and beets being some of our favorites. But when “Sweet Tea” at Saint Basil Farm (now Growing Green Farms) asked if I’d ever made “saag” from wild spinach or lamb’s quarter I answered, “You know, I haven’t!”, and I knew that was a challenge I needed to meet as saag paneer is a personal favorite. Saag paneer is a classic Indian dish. It starts with puree of greens in a spiced sauce to which fried cubes of fresh paneer cheese, which is a mild farmer’s cheese, are added at the end of cooking. The greens and the creamy cheese are reminiscent of creamed spinach in American cuisine, but complex and vibrant with the Indian spice profile.
One of the more recent, approachable Indian cookbooks is “Indian-ish” by Priya Krishna and it is a fabulous cookbook if you’re looking for easy, adaptable Indian-ish recipes. Paneer is very hard to come by in the rural US. I often make it from scratch or buy it in bulk from one of my favorite restaurants up in Greenville, SWAD. However, Priya suggests using feta cheese thus making this dish easy to recreate with a local ingredient list!
And so I set out to adapt Priya’s already adapted version of the dish to include local greens. Priya uses only spinach in her recipe, but traditionally saag is often cooked with bitter greens, usually mustard greens with spinach and I have even seen some old-school Indian recipes that use kale, radish and turnip greens. I suspect saag would do excellent with a handful of dandelion greens from your yard too.It also makes a truly excellent dish with the lamb’s quarter offered on CAFÉ.
I invite you to step outside the box with this local take on a classic Indian dish!
- ¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons of ghee (clarified butter) or oil of choice (such as vegetable, avocado, coconut, etc), divided
- 2 tablespoons coriander seeds
- 2 green cardamom pods or ¼ teaspoon ground cardamom
- 1 onion, chopped
- 1 tablespoon fresh ginger, chopped
- 3 garlic cloves, chopped
- 1 lb braising greens mix (kale, turnip greens, Brussel sprout greens, etc.)
- 2 packages lamb’s quarter, spinach or radish greens
- 1/2 lime, juiced
- 1 small hot pepper, chopped, or ground cayenne to taste
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 cup of feta cheese, drained from brine to dry out a bit, chopped into small cubes
- 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
- 1/4 teaspoon asafetida (optional, but is a great Indian pantry spice if you plan to cook Indian food!)
- 1/2 teaspoon chili powder
- Over medium heat, warm the ghee (or oil) in a large pan. Once warm, add the coriander and cardamom and cook, stirring, for about 2 minutes or until the seeds start to brown. Add the onion and cook until it is translucent, 5 to 6 minutes. Stir in the ginger and garlic and cook for 1 minute more.
2. Add the greens in batches, wilting down and adding more as you make room. Once all is added, cook for 4 to 5 minutes.
3. Remove the pan from the heat and add the lime juice, green chile, and salt. Let cool for 5 minutes. Transfer to a blender and blend into a chunky paste. Return the spinach mixture to the same pan and set it over low heat. (If you have an immersion blender, blend in the pan.) Stir in 1/2 cup water, then gently fold in the feta, being careful not to break up the cubes. Cook for 5 to 7 minutes more to soften the feta slightly and allow it to soak up some of the spinach sauce.
4. While the feta cooks work on the ghee-spice mixture. In a small pan over medium-high heat, warm the remaining 2 tablespoons of ghee (or oil) for 1 minute. Add the cumin seeds. As soon as the cumin seeds start to sputter and brown, about 1 minute max, remove the pan from the heat (cumin seeds will burn quickly, so keep your eye on it!). Immediately add the asafetida (if using) and chili powder.
5. Pour all of the ghee (or oil) mixture into the spinach and feta once that is done cooking and mix.