Of Late Night Curry Suppers & Saag Paneer
When W flies in late at night from Switzerland (which he travels to regularly for work), he'll very often request that the dinner, or rather supper, waiting at home be Asian - preferably something fragrant with spice and fiery with chilli - presumably as an antidote to the surfeit of fondue and raclette which he has no doubt overindulged in. To this end, I'll typically oblige with a one-dish noodle meal like spicy miso ramen, mee siam, or laksa. Or, if I'm feeling particularly energetic, an Indian meal.
Just take the boggling array of ingredients listed in a kofta curry dish say - in all my acquaintance with using recipes, Indian ones likely rank as the most complex (with the exception of Thai and Peranakan) in sheer terms of raw material required. Although that having been said, any kitchen with a decently stocked spice shelf shouldn't find there are too many gaps to fill. Then there's the boggling array of dishes that's needed to constitute a proper meal. To my non-Indian tastes, rice accompanied by a meat curry and a vegetable dish is plenty variety for two. However, having known a Mummyji or two, and having had the privilege of supping at their bountiful tables, I've never been anything but stunned by the staggering variety that beggars description, prepared for the "simple, home-cooked meal" to which I had been invited. I have also been told by members of the family (namely, the gents) that such a delirious spread - to my eyes, a banquet - is par on course everyday. A typical table would be heaving with two to three appetisers, two to three main dishes (featuring poultry, seafood and/or meat), as many as four vegetable preparations, a lentil-based dal dish, rice, one to two types of bread, and not one but several desserts to top it all off. And this is not including the myriad chutneys, pickles, relishes and yoghurt-based raita or pachadi (depending on where the host family is from) that accompany the meal. I can only aspire to the day I muster the courage, skill and organizational prowess it must take to put such a feast on the table when entertaining, let alone on a daily basis . But very frankly, far more modest curry meals (for lack of a better generic description) already do much to hit the spot when it's just the two of us.
W and I love saag paneer, the rich north Indian spinach dish with fried paneer. However, I've not met two versions that ever tasted alike. So without a definitive template to follow, the way I make it is constantly evolving, oftentimes influenced by a recent version I tasted that I enjoyed or a book I'm currently reading, and further doctored by my personal likes and dislikes (I like it mild and creamy, virtually an Indian creamed spinach; I dislike excessive heat, so just enough chilli is added for a discernible but unobtrusive kick). Below, my version of the dish, inspired by a recipe in Indian Essence by Atul Kochhar, chef/proprietor of the highly acclaimed Benares in Mayfair, London (as head chef at Tamarind previously, he became one of only two Indian chefs in the world ever to be awarded a Michelin star). In his introduction to the dish, the author bemusedly warns that "This recipe is a source of pride for Indian housewives, so if you happen to be that lucky guest, don't compare it to other saag paneers you have tasted - you would be asking for trouble. Cooking is a serious matter of unpredictable jealousy among Indian housewives." A Mummyji, I am not - so please feel free to up/downplay the spice ante or make it richer/less rich as suits your taste. As for the garam masala mixture, it takes no time at all to grind up a batch (small, so it stays fresh) rather than use the ready-made stuff of dubious freshness; I like Madhur Jaffrey's recipe (1 Tbsp cardamom seeds, 5cm cinnamom stick, 1 tsp each of cumin seeds, cloves and black peppercorns, and 1/4 of a nutmeg finely ground together in an electric coffee/spice grinder) from Indian Cookery.
*500gm spinach leaves *150gm paneer cheese *Peanut oil, for deep-frying *2 tbsp peanut oil *50gm unsalted butter *1 tsp cumin seeds *1 tsp mustard seeds *2 garlic cloves, minced *1/2 tsp red chilli powder *1 tsp ground coriander *1/2 tsp ground ginger *1/4 tsp freshly grated nutmeg *2 tsp grated fresh young ginger *1/2 tsp salt, or to taste *1/4 tsp sugar, or to taste *100ml single cream, or to taste *1 tsp garam masala
Wash the spinach, drain, pluck off any tough stems and discard. Wilt the spinach in a large saute pan (there's no need for extra water as enough clings to the leaves to prevent burning at first, then the leaves exude their own moisture). Drain very thoroughly. When cool enough to handle, chop finely. Set aside. Dice paneer into 2cm cubes. Heat peanut oil for deep-frying in a large, deep pan to 180˚C and deep fry the paneer cubes for about 1 minute to seal and lightly colour the surface. Drain on kitchen paper. Set aside.
Heat the 2tbsp of peanut oil and butter in a heavy-bottomed medium saucepan. Toss in the cumin and mustard seeds. Stir for a moment; once they start to hiss, crackle and pop, add the garlic. Fry for a minute or so until golden brown. Add the red chilli powder, ground coriander, ground ginger and freshly grated nutmeg, stirring for a further minute.
Add the prepared spinach and stir constantly over a low heat for 5 minutes. Add the paneer cubes, grated fresh ginger, salt and sugar to taste (add only enough sugar for a rounded flavour; the mixture should not taste sweet). Cook slowly for another 5 minutes. Finally, stir in the cream (adding less or more as suits your taste). Sprinkle with garam masala and serve.
Serves 2 as part of a meal.
The other things we had along with the saag paneer:
Shani Murgh Korma, or Royal Chicken Korma
The recipe I like best for this comes from Madhur Jaffrey's Ultimate Curry Bible (published in the US as From Curries to Kebabs), rich with yoghurt and cream, and subtly spiced with saffron, cinnamon and cardamom.
Tamarind Pulao with Curry Leaves
This delicious and incredibly easy recipe comes from Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid's Mangoes & Curry Leaves. A Tamil Nadu preparation, the tumeric-tinted basmati rice is flavoured by tamarind, curry leaves and chillies, with urad dal and cashews lending a crisp, sweet, nutty bite.
Pistachio Ice Cream
Something sweet, creamy and cold is always a nice note on which to end a spicy meal. I had planned to make kulfi for dessert. But after shelling, blanching and skinning the pistachios - the sort of work that drives one to drink, really - I couldn't quite face the prospect of reducing milk, a time-consuming process that can take up to four hours of constant stirring by the stove. This is essential to the flavour and texture of kulfi, which quickie versions (based on evaporated milk) don't quite replicate. So setting aside the kulfi idea altogether, pistachio ice cream it was, simply made by infusing cream with crushed pistachios overnight before using it for the ice cream's custard base.