A Southern Vegan Take on Saag Paneer

One of my favorite Indian take-out dishes is saag paneer, in which spinach and mustard greens are cooked with spices and cream to produce a complex sauce that is served over cubes of fresh cheese called paneer. Saag paneer is from northern India, while palak paneer hails from the south and uses only spinach.

Greens cooked slowly are a staple in many food cultures around the world. In the American south, collard greens are traditionally simmered in a pot with a ham hock and aromatics to produce a nutritious broth also known as pot liquor together with tender greens. Turnip greens are also widely used, though I don’t see them on menus as often as collards.

My take on saag paneer combines the modern movement toward plant-based eating with the traditions of the American south. Tofu is a fine substitute for paneer, since neither has a strong or distinctive flavor on its own. Almond milk works well here instead of cream. The flavor profile of this dish is so complex that I don’t miss the heaviness of dairy at all. Turnip greens give it a southern twist and honor the locality in which I’m spending this winter.

 Basmati rice, white or brown, is the best accompaniment.

While the tofu is draining as described in step 1, put your rice on to cook and gather the rest of your ingredients.

This recipe serves 4-6 people.

Ingredients:

  • 1 – 14oz (400g) package of firm or extra firm tofu cut into ½-inch squares.
  • 12oz (350g) spinach, washed and stemmed.
  • 12oz (350g) turnip greens, washed and stemmed.
  • Neutral vegetable oil (NOT olive oil. I use grapeseed or avocado)
  • 1 hefty teaspoon of ground cumin.
  • 1 teaspoon of ground coriander.
  • 1 teaspoon of sweet paprika (not smoked).
  • ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon.
  • 1 onion, chopped.
  • 1 small green chile, stemmed, seeded and minced. Jalapeño works fine.
  • 3 garlic cloves.
  • 1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger root.
  • 1 – 14oz (350g) can diced tomatoes.
  • 1½ cups unsweetened almond milk.
  • ½ cup of roasted, unsalted cashews.
  • 1 teaspoon sugar.
  • juice from half a lemon.
  • a good pile of chopped fresh cilantro.

Method:

  1. Line a baking sheet with paper towel. Spread tofu pieces on the sheet and let it drain for 20 minutes. Press dry with paper towel and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
  2. Microwave spinach in a bowl, covered, until wilted. This takes 3 minutes in my microwave. Transfer about half of it to a blender and chop the rest. Set aside.
  3. Microwave turnip greens until wilted. Again, about 3 minutes. Transfer half of those to the blender with the spinach. Chop the rest.
  4. Heat oil in a large skillet (12 inches or 30 cm in diameter) until shimmering. Add cumin, coriander, paprika, and cinnamon and sizzle for a few seconds until fragrant. Add onion and a pinch of salt. Cook until the onion is soft but not brown. Stir in the diced chile, garlic, and ginger. Cook, stirring to prevent burning until light browned and starting to get sticky. About 2-3 minutes. Stir in tomatoes, scrapping up any browned bits and cook until the pan is dry and tomatoes are changing color. 3-4 minutes. Turn off heat.
  5. Transfer half of the tomato-onion mixture, half of the almond milk, half of the cashews, and sugar to the blender with the greens and blend until smooth. Empty the blender into the skillet holding the remaining tomato-onion mixture. To it, dd the chopped greens, lemon juice and remaining almond milk. Bring to a simmer and then reduce the heat. Add salt and pepper. Taste and adjust seasonings,
  6. Stir in tofu and heat until warmed through. Transfer to serving dish and garnish with cilantro and cashews.
  7. Serve with rice.

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