Spinach, that crunchy green salad leaf packed with protein and essential vitamins, takes on a different tone in its Indian cuisine variation, saag paneer. The vegetables and nutritional benefits are still there, but this Indian dish adds a creamy, mildly spiced dimension to the spinach that pairs well with rice and meat and is almost always gluten-free.

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This third post in our series about gluten-free Indian cuisine delves into yet another item we ate at a local Indian restaurant, Haandi.

So, you’re probably wondering what’s in saag paneer — easy!  Saag mean spinach, and paneer is an Indian cheese. For you foodies, here’s a little more about the paneer.  It’s akin to a farmer’s cheese, not aged or ripened, so it has a very mild flavor. It has a pleasantly chewy, almost rubbery texture.

I’ve watched homemade paneer being made with just whole milk and lemon juice (vinegar may be subsituted).  My auntie Shobha (okay, not really my aunt, but as a family friend, she insisted I call her that!) would curdle the boiled milk with the lemon juice, then strain out the curds.  Sometimes she would ues the loose curds as they were.  Or, time permitting, she would put the curds in a cheesecloth bag and hang it over the sink, letting the whey drip out slowly.  Every half an hour or so, she would squeeze the cheesecloth tighter around the curds, compressing them into a thick brick.  She would cut the bricks into cubes and use it for one of my favorite dishes, saag paneer.

Not everyone has the opportunity to have Auntie Shobha’s saag paneer.   But luckily, it’s a staple Indian restaurant dish.  And, it’s almost always gluten-free!

When ordering this dish at an Indian restaurant, be sure to ask if the chef thickens it with flour. Spinach can be watery, and once, I dined at a restaurants that add wheat flour to thicken the dish.  But otherwise, I’ve never encountered a problem with this dish.  For more Indian cuisine dining tips, check out the first post in this series.

Here’s a recipe for gluten-free palak paneer, taken from allrecipes.com. I chose it because paneer can be hard to find outside of a local Indian grocery, and this recipe uses ricotta cheese.

Ingredients:

6 tablespoons olive oil

2 cloves garlic, chopped

1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger root

2 dried red chile peppers

1/2 cup finely chopped onion

2 teaspoons ground cumin

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1 teaspoon ground turmeric

3/4 cup sour cream

3 pounds fresh spinach, torn

1 large tomato, quartered

4 sprigs fresh cilantro leaves

8 ounces ricotta cheese

Salt to taste

Directions:

  1. In a large saucepan heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil and saute garlic, 1/2 tablespoon of ginger, red chilies (optional ingredient) and onion until brown. Mix in the cumin, coriander, turmeric and sour cream (add more or less to achieve desired creaminess). Add the spinach, handfuls at a time until it is cooked down, about 15 minutes total. Remove from heat and allow to cool slightly.
  2. Pour spinach mixture into a blender or food processor and add the tomato, the remaining 1/2 tablespoon of ginger, and cilantro (add more or less according to taste). Blend for 15 to 30 seconds, or until the spinach is finely chopped. Pour back into the saucepan and keep warm over low heat.
  3. In a medium frying pan heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat, and fry cheese until browned; drain and add to spinach. Cook for 10 minutes on low heat. Season with salt to taste.