I’m never a one-dish girl. Even at my favorite restaurants, I can’t pick up a menu and order something that I’ve had before. God forbid I miss their best dish, even if I know I had it two weeks ago, and there’s no way in hell I’ll ever come close with anything else. Call it a handicap of mine.
With one exception, that is. I cannot stop ordering saag paneer.
It’s as if I’m channeling some inner Popeye the second I step into an Indian restaurant. Seriously, it’s a problem, because frankly, I’m a little ashamed of myself. Until now, that is.
I’ve tried to make saag paneer at home before, to no avail. The cream and ghee they use in copious quantities in restaurant cooking doesn’t really make it into most cookbooks, because seriously, do you really want to know what you’re eating? It’s never tasted quite as good. But this recipe, which I adapted from Veganomicon, is genius. That creamy consistency? They achieve it with squash.
Kind of surprising, right? It makes total sense if you think about it, though. There is a reason butternut squash soup is kind of creamy, even without any cream. If you’re not easily convinced, you must go cook this now. Seriously — I really think you’ll thank me. My version is not vegan, because James really wanted to make cheese, and I kind of like paneer, but I think it would have actually been better without it. (James, by the way, agrees. And he had seconds — for a dish with no meat! If that doesn’t convince you, I don’t know what will).
This is a great start to the “eat less meat” challenge I unofficially took on a little while ago. (It’s been going well — more on that later).
Pumpkin Saag Paneer
Serves 2-4, depending on how ravenous everyone is.
This recipe goes well with brown rice, and can definitely be made without the paneer. The original version is from Veganomicon, which is probably my favorite cookbook at the moment. If you want to make the paneer, start on that before you start making the saag. You also need roasted squash, but you can do that ahead of time.
- 2 quarts whole milk
- 3-4 T. fresh lemon juice
- 1/2 t. salt
Pour the milk into a heavy saucepan and place over medium-high heat. Cook, stirring often, until the milk comes to a rolling boil (careful — it will boil over, like it did for us). When it comes to this point, turn the heat off and pour in the lemon juice. Place over low heat, and stir. The milk should separate into curds and a yellowish whey. If not, add a bit more lemon juice and hope for the best. If so, yay! Drain the curds in a cheese cloth (careful — you should keep the whey for the saag, or even just to freeze, because it adds a nice cheesy flavor to baked goods if you use it in place of water).
Once the curds are well-drained, mix in the salt. Wrap the curds tightly, and then place under a heavy object, so they can form a hard block. We used two cast-iron pans and a jar of sourdough starter for this, but be creative.
Let the cheese press for 45 minutes (or until the saag is cooked).
Pumpkin saag paneer
- 1/2 recipe paneer, cubed (optional)
- 2 lbs. roasted squash (any type), or 3 lbs. if you don’t use the paneer. I used acorn and butternut squash here.
- 3 T. peanut oil (or olive oil)
- 1 large yellow onion, finely chopped
- 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 1-1/2 t. garam masala (a cinnamony one, if you have it)
- 1/4 t. ground cinnamon
- 1/2 t. salt
- 1/8 t. cayenne (this will make for a not very spicy saag, so taste and add more at the end if you’re into that sort of thing)
- 1 c. water or whey (leftover from making paneer)
- 1-inch cube fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped or microplaned
- 10 oz. fresh spinach, de-stemmed
- Juice from 1/2 a lime
I roasted the squash the night before I made this in a 350°F oven for something like 35 minutes. I then skinned and cubed the squash, once it was cool, for this recipe. (Roast the seeds at the same time — they are delicious roasted with some olive oil and salt).
In a heavy soup pot, heat the oil for a minute over medium-high heat. Add the onions, and saute for five minutes or so, stirring often to keep them from burning. You want them to go translucent. Add the garlic and cook for a couple more minutes, and then throw in the pumpkin.
Once the pumpkin is heated up a bit, add in all the spices, the salt, and the ginger. Toss everything around in the pot with a wooden spoon for a minute or so, and then add the whey. Cook for a few minutes, stirring occasionally. Turn the heat down to medium low.
Next, add in the spinach. You will probably have to add it in batches, and wait for each to wilt. Finally, stir everything together, and add the cubed paneer. Cook for 10-20 minutes over low heat, or until your rice is ready. Serve with lime wedges (or just squeeze the lime juice into the dish prior to serving).