Indian spinach

When the airborne fluff of cottonwood flowers floats on the sweet breeze of my hometown, it’s my cue that the summer solstice is near, which means the spring crop of local spinach is near its peak. Those fresh, meaty leaves are a seasonal reminder of where I am, as well as what season it is, among the many benefits of eating locally. But as much as I love spinach, it can become a challenge to keep the fire burning for Popeye’s little helper. That’s when the other side of the world comes in handy. With a bit of knowledge and just a handful of ingredients from another hemisphere, the resulting infusion of exciting flavors will keep you eating your spinach with enthusiasm.

Specifically, I’m thinking of the northern Indian dish palak gosht, meat with spinach, for which the only ingredients that need to be imported are spices and ginger. Or the related dish palak paneer, spinach and cheese, which can similarly be made with only those imports. Palak paneer is similar to saag paneer, the main difference is that the saag version includes other greens, like mustard, in addition to spinach, or Palak in Punjabi, the dialect of Punjab state, aka The Punjab.

These two dishes are very similar, with the vegetarian version containing cheese instead of meat. In both cases the sauce is dark green, as if made from pure spinach, but is actually equally tomato-based, with the green from the spinach covering up the red of the tomatoes. These recipes use spinach in ways I don’t often get around to, and learning to make them can be a good way to exercise my creativity in the kitchen. The ability of a few seeds, roots and powders to transform local ingredients into something exotic is why merchants like Marco Polo become de-facto explorers, and why spices like black pepper were once more expensive than gold.

The interwebs are full of recipes for both of these dishes, but as both can be found in my go-to cookbook for Indian cuisine, 50 Great Curries of India by Camellia Panjabi, I need look no further. Panjabi is a legendary chef and founder of a family of restaurants in London known as the Masala Zone. I picked up her book at the airport in Chennai, awaiting a plane-change en-route to Kerala. Had food been the only impetus for my trip I could have simply turned around and gone home, cookbook in hand, and eaten just as well.

Panjabi describes The Punjab as “…home to an earthy cuisine. The fields are full of wheat, rice, corn, mustard, tomatoes and other wonderful vegetables.” All of these, it’s worth repeating, can be found here in the U.S., along with spinach.

Indian recipes like Panjabi’s can seem overwhelming at first, as they contain so many ingredients, mostly spices. But aside from their whirlwinds of flavor, the main ingredients are few, and humble.

These recipes are edited slightly for space and clarity. Panjabi is a stickler for freshly ground spices, with the seeds being pan-toasted before grinding. It’s a rule worth sticking to with Indian food.

Palak Paneer (Spinach with curd cheese)

3/4 pint milk

1/2 cup yogurt

2 tsp. lime juice

1/2 to 3/4 lb. spinach

2 jalapenos or (similar small green hotties), chopped

1/2 tsp. chopped ginger

2 Tbsp. cooking oil

Pinch of fenugreek seeds

1 onion, minced or grated

1 garlic clove, chopped

1/4 tsp. cumin seeds

2 tomatoes, pureed

For the cheese, carefully bring the milk to near-boiling, then add yogurt and a pinch of salt. Simmer for 7-10 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool. Place a strainer over a bowl, and pour the milk through it. Press down on the curds with the back of a spoon to get the water out (or squeeze in cheesecloth).

For the spinach sauce, cook the spinach, ginger and jalapenos in a pan with a pinch of salt and a splash of water. Allow to cool, then puree in a blender.

Heat the oil in a pan, on medium, then fry the fenugreek seeds for 30 seconds. Add the onion and fry until translucent. Add the garlic and cumin seeds. Stir them around, then add the tomato puree. When the water from the tomatoes has evaporated and the sauce thickens, add the cheese curds and spinach puree. Stir it up and serve.

Palak Gosht (meat with spinach)

1 lb. meat (lamb, mutton, beef or venison, as long as its red and tender)

1 minced onion

1 1/2-inch cube of ginger

2 good-sized garlic cloves

2-3 jalapenos (or similar green chiles)

1/2 cup yogurt

1/4 plus 1/2 tsp. freshly ground cumin

1/2 lb. fresh spinach

1/4 cup cooking oil

1 cinnamon leaf (optional, because, cinnamon leaf?!? Otherwise use a bay leaf)

1 cardamom pod (preferably a black cardamom pod)

3 cloves

1/2 tsp. freshly ground coriander

3 tomatoes, finely chopped or pureed

pinch of nutmeg (optional)

1 chunk of butter (optional)

Puree the ginger, garlic and jalapenos in a food processor. Add the yogurt and ¼ tsp cumin powder. Marinate the lamb in this for at least an hour, preferably overnight.

Blanch the spinach for ten or so seconds in boiling water. Puree.

Heat the oil in a pan, add the cinnamon (or bay) leaf, cardamom, and cloves. When the spices begin to brown add the onions. Slowly fry until they start to brown. Add coriander and ½ tsp cumin powders. Stir, and add a splash of water.

Add the meat and marinade. The meat will release water as it cooks. When this moisture is nearly gone add the tomatoes, two cups water, and a teaspoon salt. Cover, and simmer on low until the moisture is again nearly gone. Add pureed spinach, cook gently for five minutes. Sprinkle with nutmeg powder, and add a chunk of butter if desired.

Both of these can be served with rice, or an Indian flatbread like parathas, rotis, or naan.