Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Of Late Night Curry Suppers & Saag Paneer

Like many college students, my days were spent feverishly meeting those looming essay deadlines, and my nights, on the tiles. Being based in the UK, those lager-fuelled evenings often ended in some dodgy Balti house, inevitably festooned with pink flocked wallpaper and invariably featuring a menu boasting such delights as vindaloo ("Hot!", helpfully said the menu, with a 3-chilli pictorial rating to further drive home the point) or korma ("V.Mild", no chilli rating here) in a grand choice of chicken or lamb. While I like to imagine my palate has somewhat developed since, I nonetheless look back on those days fondly. If nothing else, they were what left me with a taste for the cooking of the great subcontinent, far far more diverse than that initial impression of indifferent homogeneity would lead one to believe.

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.


Blogger Mika said...

Hi-what a delicious feast. I especially love the ice cream-yum. I am never satisfied with homemade saag panner. I will try the recipe you have posted soon.

2:22 pm, February 21, 2006  
Blogger Rosa's Yummy Yums said...

Your menu is absolutely beautiful!
Everything looks so appetizing...

3:45 pm, February 21, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This story made me laugh so hard about
that such a delirious spread - "to my eyes, a banquet - is par on course everyday."

I had my first Indian meal at friend's home (been lucky to have spent few years in an International school). I ask my friend what is your family celebrating?

Haha its just their regular meal... but my sister had her memorable share, she got invited to the residence of the Indian ambassador.
It was a big meal but just the family the surprised she got was they ate with their hands. My sis was so happy to obliged.

Been eyeing this saag paneer for awhile now. Athens farmers market is plenty with fresh spinach but I spend hours and hours washing them, the spinach are freshly picked!

5:53 pm, February 21, 2006  
Blogger santos. said...

mmmm. homecoming must be a wonderful thing at your house! indian food is the one thing i really crave that i don't have much access to around here; there is only one restaurant on island, and the ingredients are near impossible to come by. have you ever tried to make your own paneer? i think that's next on my list.

6:30 pm, February 21, 2006  
Blogger Ruth Daniels said...

J - as always your posts are visually spectacular. And most of the time, I'm envious of your patience making those awesome desserts. So usually I just live vicariously through the photos.

This time you've hit on some personal favorites - Madhur Jafrey (( have some of her books and now need to buy the Ultimate Curry Bible) and sag paneer. I've bookmarked the recipe and will definitely cook up a feast soon. You've inspired me!!! I haven't done it in years and I do remember (long ago) making such a meal and wondering how my Indian friends found the time (and energy) to do this everyday.

Thanks so much for sharing and sparking some great memories.

8:39 pm, February 21, 2006  
Blogger Unknown said...

exquisite photos, the indian menu sounds absolutely beyond me, and to have to cook such an array of dishes will probably just push me and hubby into the arms of Rang Mahal or any other North Indian restaurant around!

8:46 pm, February 21, 2006  
Blogger Nic said...

I just can't imagine spending the time (and dishes) required to make such eleborate meals on an everyday basis - not that I don't want to, mind you. Everything looks fantastic, J.

9:13 pm, February 21, 2006  
Blogger Annette Tan said...

Do you know I still have one of your recipes for Saag Paneer which you gave me years ago? I liked it so much, I wrote it down in my recipe book. The polenta came out quite well, considering that I put it a bit too much salt at first and had to correct it by adding more milk and polenta halfway. M didn't seem to mind though. He reckons we should have dinner at yours more often :-)

9:27 pm, February 21, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I LOVED the pulao, absolutely adored it. What an excuse to acquire the book...

9:52 pm, February 21, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Love Saag paneer, love Indian food.
I think it is where I learnt to chop vegetables quickly, my sister and I would prepare a 3 course meal with a rice and 2 curries and side dishes for my mum and dad. (just for fun) I miss that!

I am very much in love with your ice cream spoon, I love little spoons like that when eating icecream. Who is it made by?

11:40 pm, February 21, 2006  
Blogger Pille said...

Looks wonderful, and if I need to think of anyone being able to serve a meal consisting of a huge range of complicated but equisite dishes, it's you, J. The paneer, chicken and pistachio ice cream all sound divine!
I saw Atul Kochhar in the TV last night, when watching the latest episode of MasterChef. The dishes the contestants were cooking looked delicious.

1:09 am, February 22, 2006  
Blogger Michelle said...

J...I don't want to just repeat myself every time you post but I can't help it; everything you post is just so darn pretty! Not only am I envious of your enormously huge cookbook collection, but also of all of your beautiful dishes! Have you ever tried making your own paneer? I just found a recipe and a friend who makes her own, so I would like to try. Thanks for the eye-candy, as always!

4:27 am, February 22, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I too love saag paneer. Thank you for posting the recipe, I look forward to trying it. Have you ever tried to make your own paneer cheese? I have come across a few recipes but have yet to be so ambitious. Perhaps I will give it a try soon with this recipe.

6:24 am, February 22, 2006  
Blogger Stephanie said...

Creamy saag paneer! My idea of heaven! I am now having severe cravings.

8:40 am, February 22, 2006  
Blogger Cathy said...

Hi Jocelyn - I've been on a little bit of an Indian cooking kick lately thanks to some wonderful blogs (Nupur's and Indira's to name just two) and several new cookbooks. I love this food - there is such a wonderful variety - but I have yet to make more than one dish in an evening. I think you created quite a banquet of your own - everything looks amazing. Thanks too for the recipe - I haven't tried paneer yet, but plan to now!

12:08 pm, February 22, 2006  
Blogger Chubby Hubby said...

As a happy recipient of a portion of the saag paneer, the korma and the pulao, I have to say a big thank you! It was super-yummy. Made for an excellent Sunday lunch. I've also been a big saag paneer addict for years. Unfortunately, other than yours, I find most of the ones I've tried at restaurants here just not up to snuff.

5:42 pm, February 22, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Beautiful as always J. And I have to say, I do love your collection of little spoons / shovels. They really do make me go "awwww..."

I've tagged you for the Five Food Challenges meme which I don't think you've done yet. I can't see what there'd be left for you to do though! You attempt everything with such flair and attention to detail!

ps. I'm so jealous that Aun got to eat it!

7:53 pm, February 22, 2006  
Blogger Gustad said...

my college days were a lil bit more entertaining as i spent them learning a million and 1 ways to cook those cheep not-fresh 10 cent ramen. good times.
that curry bible book looks very nice, i think i might get it.

6:10 am, February 23, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i don't often read ur blog entries from start to end as ur pictures kinda distract me along the way - but have to say, i laughed out loud a coupla times when reading this one, esp at the part about how shelling, blanching and skinning pistachios could drive one to drink! :) I'm amazed you even GOT THAT FAR with the pistachios - as for me, I would just completely avoid any recipe that required me to do THAT MUCH WORK, and then some :)

2:48 pm, February 23, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi J, I totally agree with you - I am in awe of the spread Indian mothers can put out as even part of a 'simple' meal! And I too love cooking Indian food but find I can never make anything the same way twice. I'll definitely give your version of saag paneer a try, as although I make it often, I've never found one that impressed me enough to make it into the 'must do it this way again' category. The whole meal looks absolutely luscious - the last time I prepared an Indian feast of those proportions it took me two days of hard labor!

1:25 am, February 24, 2006  
Blogger Vivilicious said...

Oh J., I've said it before and I'll say it again, what a lucky man W. is! Homemade paneer is easy to make and delicious, you for one would have no trouble should you feel like giving it a shot. I am really into Nepalese curries (one of my best pals hails from there); they are full of spice and fragrance without so much of the cream and coconut that I can find overwhelming at times.

5:32 pm, February 24, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Joycelyn, I'm not mad about Indian food normally but your beautiful creations make me reconsider it :) The pistachio ice-cream must taste wonderful too! I look forward to hearing about your 'student life' in the UK some time...

11:45 pm, February 24, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Jocelyn,

Another amazing "festin" with fully coloured foods! I love Indian food but rarely cooks it simply because I am still uncertain about the spices. Like you, I do not like excessive heat. Tempted to try your suggested version of SAAG PANEER and pistachio ice cream!!!

10:16 am, February 25, 2006  
Blogger Steffles said...

Hey J, I love Indian food too - thanks for sharing the recipes and great pictures! Your paneer (my ultimate favourite) look perfect!

3:06 pm, February 26, 2006  
Blogger deborah said...

mmm this indian food taken to another level. really lovely photography as well. i love all your sweet and precious utensils. if ever im in singapore i'll need to get a kuidore shopping tour if at all possible ;)

2:18 pm, March 01, 2006  
Blogger Jocelyn:McAuliflower said...

I finally found a recipe for making paneer- Saag here I come!

2:51 pm, March 16, 2006  
Blogger Joycelyn said...

hi mika, thanks! hope the recipe is to your taste - will be glad for any feedback!

hi rosa, thanks!

hi sha, i see you know exactly what i mean ;) i get round the dirty spinach issue by buying ready cleaned baby spinach, lazy girl that i am ;)

hi santos, the wonderful paneer you made has inspired me to start making my own again; i haven't in a long time (now for the lemon versus buttermilk taste-off ;))

hi ruth, thanks glad you enjoyed the post ;) i must say as much as i love all of madhur jaffrey's books, the curry bible is definitely my fave...

hi cath, going to rang mahal for sunday lunch is something w & i really look forward to too ;)

hi nic, thanks! i can't either - which is why i'm always so awed by those who can (and do) !

hi a, you and m are welcome anytime ;) food voyeur that i am, i would love to take a peek at your recipe book (and your mum's) sometime!

hi s, re: the book, it was a matter of time and "prudence" ;)

hi clare, thanks for dropping by! the little ice cream spoons are from muji; aren't they sweet ;)

hi pille, thanks! the atul kochhar episode sounds wonderful - what i'll do for some good food telly right now!

hi michelle, thanks you are very kind; making paneer isn't difficult but seeing as there's good access to decent ready-made paneer in singapore, i've been awfully lazy about making my own, which i really should

hi cin, thanks; i fool by writing in a more organised manner than i cook; the latter really is more like ordered chaos in my tiny kitchen ;)

hi gemma, thanks; i did try making panner a long time ago and plan to again - will make a trip down to little india for the proper molds and report back ;)

hi mm, thanks! oops ;)

hi paz, thanks!

hi cathy, thanks! i totally agree - the sheer (and seemingly endless) variety of regional variations and dishes is truly staggering...

hi ch, thanks always happy to share;i'll make it the next time with homemade paneer - have a bunch of recipes i'm eager to try!

hi ag, i do have a bit of a thing for twee spoons and shovels ;)

hi gustad, the curry bible truly is as its title proclaims, ultimate in every regard!

hi spots, thanks!

hi melissa, thanks; back breaking labour just about sums it up ;)funnily, it's the taste-as-you-go-along aspect of it that i find the most enjoyable about the process

hi viv, nepalese food sounds lovely - now to find myself a reliable source for recipes ;)

hi keiko, thanks! i must agree it is an acquired taste - ironically, it wasn't until i lived in the uk that i started to really enjoy indian food!

hi bea, i'm sure whatever you choose to apply your boundless skill to will turn out gorgeous!

hi steffles, thanks! glad you like indian food too

hi saffron, thanks - happy to oblige anytime ;)

hi jocelyn, you go girl ;)

1:55 am, March 30, 2006  
Blogger Joycelyn said...

hi rani and raja, thanks for visiting, your kind comments and advice - much appreciate it. i made paneer a long time back and did it by curdling with lemon juice. have recently, however, come across interesting recipes using buttermilk instead - am curious to do a taste comparison using both methods

2:02 am, March 30, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Please post with conversions thanks

6:52 am, December 11, 2011  

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