Cheap Eats: Saag Paneer
by Megan Reynolds
Here’s a dish that’s cheap, easy and tastes like restaurant food, which is the one thing that I miss when I’m cooking at home a lot. This recipe makes enough for one person for an entire week’s worth of meals, or one person + anyone you live with that might drunk-eat your food while you’re asleep. It keeps well, tastes even better the next day, and is a welcome addition to dinner parties, buffets, and any other occasion you might have that requires food for an army on the cheap.
Saag paneer is a delicious Indian dish that is basically creamed spinach in a curry sauce with delicious bits of fried cheese. If you’re not wild about the idea of consuming giant quantities of dairy in one sitting, sub out the cheese for cubed extra-firm tofu. I relish the joy and occasional discomfort that comes with all the dairy, so I keep the cheese in, but have made this dish with tofu, and it’s just as good.
Here’s what you’ll need. The prices are what I paid at my local, non-fancy Foodtown in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
• 1 large onion, $1.79
one 2-to-3 inch knob of ginger, $1.47
• 3–4 cloves of garlic, $1.56/head of garlic
• 2 packages of chopped or whole leaf frozen spinach(I used whole leaf, but either works just fine), $2.98
• 1 pint of heavy cream, $2.79
• 1 block of a white, firm, mild cheese that can be briefly fried. A note on the cheese: paneer is awesome if you can actually find it. I did once at a fancier grocery store and it was great, but it was also expensive. I usually make this with queso blanco, which is readily available at my grocery store, $5.49
• Rice or some sort of grain to go under this delicious meal.
• Curry powder, salt, pepper.
The prep is a little intensive, but once you have everything chopped and good to go, all you’re really doing is throwing things in a pot, pushing them around with a wooden spoon, and watching an episode of a half-hour long television show of your choice. I recommend Netflix’ed episodes of Say Yes To the Dress: Atlanta or Jeopardy, but you choose your own adventure.
Put on some tunes, so you feel less like a harried MasterChef Junior contestant and more like a mature, responsible adult cooking dinner. Also, have a beer, or a glass of wine. Cooking’s more fun with a drink in hand. Let’s get started.
First, tend to the two things that will take the longest: the rice, and the spinach. If you were smart and set the spinach out on the counter to defrost in the otherworldly heat of your apartment in winter overnight, you get a cookie. If you didn’t, just put the spinach in a bowl full of hot water and let them hang out for a while, until they feel less frozen and a little squishy.
For the rice: If you have a rice cooker, fantastic. They make everything easier. If you don’t have a rice cooker, follow these instructions at the kitchn, because I am utterly hopeless at making rice on the stove. I was taught to measure rice and water by my Asian mother who refuses all conventional measuring techniques as a matter of course. She recommends measuring the water level in your rice cooker using your finger as a guide — if the water comes up to the second knuckle on your index finger, you’re good to go. If you enjoy measurements, the ratio is generally 1:2 — one cup of rice to 2 cps of water. Prep the rice using your preferred method, then set it and forget it.
For your aromatics: Chop the ginger, garlic and onion into a fine, uniform dice. This will take some time, but you’re aiming for pieces that are all the same size, so they cook at the same pace. Ginger is a pain in the ass to break down, but it’s worth it. Peel it with a vegetable peeler, then slice into matchsticks and dice.
Cooking time: Coat the bottom of a large, wide skillet in oil — vegetable, olive, or whatever you have — and get it shimmery, over a medium heat. Throw in the aromatics with a bunch of curry powder, maybe a tablespoon to start, plus salt and pepper to taste. Push everything around a bit with your wooden spoon to make sure all is coated evenly.
Cheese time! Dice the cheese into uniform chunks of heaven. In a smaller skillet, get some oil nice and hot, throw the cheese in that pan and sauté for a bit until it gets a little squishy, with a nice, golden outside. Take it off the heat, and set aside.
Do things smell delicious yet? Has your roommate come home and told you that it smells like the best kind of restaurant in the hallway? Good. That means 10–15 minutes have elapsed, and you’re ready for the spinach. If it hasn’t thawed yet, take it out of the package and throw it in the microwave until it doesn’t feel frozen anymore, for about a minute. Expel most of the water out of the spinach by plopping it in a colander lined with a paper towel and pressing down with your hands, until things feel markedly less soggy.
Throw the spinach in the pan with the aromatics and stir to incorporate. Add more curry powder, salt and pepper if necessary. Once everything is well-coated, pour about half the container of heavy cream into the pan and stir. The spinach will start to soak up the cream, and things should be turning a lovely golden yellow, but if it looks less soupy than you like, pour the rest of the cream in as you see fit. Let that cook down for about 5 minutes, then add the cheese cubes, stirring heartily to get everything nicely situated. Adjust spices and cream to taste.
Turn the heat to low, finish your drink. Take to the sofa, where you will watch your 30 minute television program of choice, checking on things halfway through. At the end of the show, the food should be done. Serve over your fluffily cooked rice, and enjoy!