Saag Paneer-Inspired Greens and Feta

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

Directions:

  1. 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.   

Tomato Coconut Curry Soup

Music: Cat Power, You are Free – This album is perfect for a lazy night of cooking.  As you will see in the recipe, there is a lot of down time.  I spent this time soaking in this album and enjoying Marshall’s sultry voice and poetic lyrics. There’s even some surprise vocals from Eddie Vedder on this album.  Anyone else into Cat Power? Any other album recommendations??

Menu: Soup topped with lime cilantro roasted chickpeas

Recently, we went out to eat at Watercourse Foods (yummm) with some super friends.  I have recently taken up this “gluten-free thing” to see if it helps with some other health issues.  As you may have inferred from the previous sentence, I’m not too thrilled about this “thing”.  For those of you who know me personally, know that I love my gluten.  Possibly my most favorite food item in the whole wide world is garlic bread.  I haven’t had garlic bread…in a really long time…sigh. 

So, when I had this tomato soup at Watercourse, I thought, “now this is a soup that doesn’t need garlic bread!” I must say it is heart-breaking to make tomato soup with out a hunk of crunchy, garlicky bread to soak it up. A few of us at the table got this soup and we all fell in love.  So much so, that one of us asked the waiter what was in it. His response was something like, “ummm tomato, curry, and coconut milk (duh was implied).” And of course, I thought I can’t wait to make this at home with whole spices to try to really boost the flavor.  That is precisely what I did!

You can see the seeds toasting: I selected cumin, coriander, fenugreek, and a touch of mustard seeds.  You can grind them in a spice or coffee grinder or have fun with your hands and do it with a mortar and pestle (courtesy of the husband for xmas!). I made my base of aromatics with the classic Indian/curry mixture – onion, chile, garlic, and ginger.  I browned the onions very deeply (this isn’t a good picture, sorry!).  This is the start of all the flavor.  If you have the time, spend a good 25 minutes browning the onions.  Then add the rest of your aromatics. 

Sometimes, I use a small food processor when cooking Indian to help reduce the time chopping.  However, if I have the time, I love to chop and mince ingredients.  It’s part of the reason I think cooking is so relaxing.  Many people report that running is relaxing because of the repetition of footsteps (along with many of other things…), and I think that’s what cooking does for me.  Once you become comfortable in the kitchen, it is repetition, especially knife skills.  Just writing this is making my wrists ache to get back in the kitchen and do some chopping…

Anyways, back to the soup!  The crunchy cabbage really adds to the soup and is part of the reason garlic bread is not entirely necessary for this tomato soup.  That doesn’t mean I wasn’t aching for it the entire time I cooked this soup. I did, however, come up with the brilliant idea to top this soup with something equally as crunchy as garlic bread…roasted chickpeas! So, I took what I planned on topping the soup with, lime juice and cilantro, and tossed that with very crunchy, roasted chickpeas, for a supremely satisfying crunch.

By the way, who needs cream when you have coconut milk?!?!  The coconut milk was such a perfect addition to this soup.  It made the spicy,  flavorful tomato soup base, rich, creamy, and slightly sweet. 

Funny side story about how awesome this soup is: We had to leave for the weekend and my sister came over to dog and chicken-sit for a few days. One of the mentioned perks of pet sitting for us is that I try to leave lots of good food stocked 🙂 So, I got a text soon after we left that went something like this, “what the hell is in the soup?!? it’s rocking my world!!!!” I took it as a compliment that my rip-off of this Watercourse soup was a complete success 🙂

Tomato Coconut Curry Soup
Inspired by Watercourse Foods, Denver, CO

Ingredients:

  • 1 TB cumin seeds
  • 1 TB coriander seeds
  • 1 tspn. fenugreek seeds
  • 1/2 tspn. brown mustard seeds
  • 1 tspn. tumeric
  • OR sub the whole toasted seeds for 2  – 3 TB curry powder
  • Ghee or coconut oil (around 2 TB)
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 1 large serrano pepper, minced (or hot pepper of your choice)
  • 5 – 6 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 – 1 1/2 piece of ginger, large gnarly spots, peeled, minced (I like to keep most of the skin on)
  • 2 – 28 oz. cans of tomatoes (your choice of type – I think I did one crushed and one diced)
  • 1 small head of cabbage, thinly sliced (I like it chunkier, but feel free to shred for a thinner result)
  • 1 can coconut milk (full fat is just better)
  • 1 batch of lime-cilantro roasted chickpeas

Directions:

  1. Place all seeds in a small saucepan over medium heat.  Toast for about 5 minutes, until fragrant and seeds have darkened. Remove from heat and ground spices.  You can do this by spice/coffee grinder or mortar and pestle. Add tumeric and stir to combine.
  2. In large dutch oven, heat ghee or oil over medium-high heat.  Add onions and  cook until brown and smelling delicious, at least 10 minutes and up to 35 minutes. 
  3. Add pepper, garlic, and ginger.  Stir to incorporate and cook for 2 minutes. 
  4. Add ground spices (or curry powder).  Stir to incorporate and cook for an additional 2 minutes.
  5. Add tomatoes.  Stir to incorporate.  Once mixture comes to a simmer, turn heat down to medium-low and let the soup simmer for about 20 minutes.  You can speed this process up if on a time crunch, but the longer it simmers, the more time the flavors have to come together.  
  6. Once soup has simmered for a while, add cabbage.  Stir in and let cabbage soften in soup.  If you like your cabbage still pretty crunchy, this will only take 3 minutes or so.  If you like the cabbage a bit more soft, you can allow it to simmer in the soup for up to 15 minutes.  
  7. When the cabbage is done to your liking.  Turn heat off and add coconut milk.  Stir until soup is creamy and milk is completely dispersed in soup. Taste and season with S &P, if needed.
  8. Top with chickpeas (or garlic bread if you are so lucky, but please don’t tell me if you do…) and devour.

Saag Chole & Nina

Music: Nina Simone, Anthology
Menu: Saag Chole, yogurt, tortillas (I had some that needed eating, but splurge on naan or chapati if you can!)

I’m baaaaaaaaaaack!!!!  I’ve have been MIA, I know.  I have no good excuse, really.  So, I’ll just leave it at that.

One of our recent culinary goals is to start cooking more Indian.  We LOVE Indian food.  And I have gotten the hang of making beginner style Indian meals.  In other words, I can make a mean curry, I have a basic stocked pantry, and an understanding of the flavors.  I have now entered phase two.  Phase two means advancing my pantry with whole spices, attempting ghee, and attempting to make homemade naan!  So, here is the first step to the addition of some yummy cumin seeds in this beautiful Saag Chole!

 
As you can see I have a bottle of cumin seeds.  I need to get whole coriander seeds, but the cumin seeds have made a HUGE difference already in flavor compared to using ground cumin!
 
This dish was quick, easy, and full of flavor and nutrition.   I used two packs of frozen spinach and two cans of chickpeas, too!  Next time I make it I will make a few changes…the first being coconut milk.  After I got everything in the pot, I added about 1/2 cup of water, I suggest replacing that with lite coconut milk.  The dish is pretty rich as is, so lite would be just fine.  I remember having Saag Chole at my fave Indian restaurant here in Denver and the dish being creamy and almost the consistency of a dip.  So, I did a bit of mashing towards the end to try to get this consistency, but I think coconut milk would go a long way.

A little bit about the music choice…in addition to loving Indian food, we also dig Nina Simone in a big way.  If you haven’t listened to her, do it.  Seriously, do it.   Now.   She’s known as a jazz standards singer, but she goes far, far, far beyond that (see Funkier Than a Mosquito’s Tweeter).  Her take on the standards are different (Feeling Good); her deep, melodic voice gives these songs an emotive quality unattainable by other singers (Black is the Color).  Beyond the familiar, the “High Priestess of Soul” was also an accomplished pianist, composer, and civil rights activist – a truly musical chameleon who embraced all styles and never shied from expressing her womanhood (I Put a Spell on You),  her beliefs (Let it All Out), and the undeniably passionate and soulful instrument which was her voice.

The Anthology album is a great compilation of both standards and originals and a perfect way to dip your toes into the wonderful world of Ms. Simone.  The only song that is missing, which I highly suggest you check out, is Baltimore.

Our wonderful friend Jillian is letting us hold her beautiful orchid hostage for a while and couldn’t resist this photo showing it off 🙂

Saag Chole

Ingredients:

  • 1 large (or 2 medium/small) baking potato
  • EVOO or vegetable oil or ghee!
  • 1/2 tspn. (heaping) of cumin seeds
  • 2 inch piece of ginger, peeled
  • 1 small serrano chile
  • 5 – 6 garlic cloves
  • 2 onions, chopped
  • 2 tomatoes, chopped
  • 1/2 tspn. coriander, tumeric, cinnamon, garam masala
  • 1/4 tspn. cayenne pepper
  • S & P
  • 2 (10 ounce) packages of frozen spinach
  • 2 cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed
  • juice of 1/2 lemon
  • Cilantro, optional

Directions:

  1. Cut potato into small pieces resembling size of chickpeas.  Boil potatoes until almost tender.  Turn heat off and let stand in water for 5 minutes, drain.  
  2. Heat oil/ghee in large skillet.  Add cumin seeds and toast until fragrant and beginning to pop over medium-high heat.  
  3. While cumin seeds toast, place ginger, chile, and garlic in a small food processor and blend until a paste is formed.  Alternatively, you can mince these ingredients.  Add to skillet with cumin and saute for a minute until fragrant.
  4. Add onions.  Saute until deeply browned.  The browner, the more flavor!  Don’t let them burn, but a nice deep brown will intensify the flavor and allow for a deep color for the dish.  Stir frequently.  
  5. Add tomatoes and stir to incorporate. 
  6. Add all spices and stir to evenly distribute.  
  7. Add spinach and then chickpeas.  Drizzle with lemon juice.  Stir.
  8. Let simmer over low heat for about 10 minutes allowing the flavors to combine and stirring every few minutes.  
  9. Adjust seasonings as needed!  I needed a bit more lemon, cayenne and garam masala.
  10. Add some chopped cilantro, turn off heat.
  11. Serve with additional cilantro, yogurt, and a slice of lemon/lime.  Enjoy 🙂