Considering its relative simplicity and abundant array of vegetarian dishes, Indian food never fails to amaze me with its full-flavored culinary repertoire that never leaves me wanting meat. Some may argue that if you add enough spices you can make boot leather taste good, but Indian cuisine isn't about wanton seasoning. At its core, the cuisine is subtly nuanced with dishes that are brimming with umami, while maintaining a palate pleasing balance of the other four basic tastes.
Palak Paneer (a.k.a. Saag Paneer) is no exception and although the curry is largely comprised of pureed spinach and a bland cheese, it manages to eke out a monstrous amount of flavor from the rest of the ingredients. While the original isn't fully plant-based due to the cheese and addition of cream at the end, it's fairly easy to take this dish the last step from vegetarian to vegan by making a few minor changes.
Paneer is a mild fresh cheese that's made by curdling milk with an acid and then pressing the curds. When it's freshly made and minimally processed, the cheese has a tender melt-in-your-mouth texture not unlike tofu. While the texture may be close, the taste and flavor is a world away. Paneer is rich, creamy and savory with just a hint of tartness while tofu tends to be watery, vegetal, bland and flat.
By marinating the tofu for a few days in nutritional yeast, lemon juice and salt it's possible to bridge this gap and create a plant-based palak paneer that's just as flavorful as the original. The marinade helps the tofu shed its soy flavor flavor in favor of something distinctly dairy and dare I say, close to the Indian cheese. The second benefit is that the salt coaxes out water giving the tofu a firmer texture that better resembles the freshly pressed curds of paneer.
While it's important to cook the curry long enough for the flavors to mingle and to take the green edge off the spinach, the application of gratuitous heat will turn the spinach an unappetizing shade of koala poop green and give it a canned spinach smell that's equally disagreeable. That's why I like to start with fresh spinach, blanching it only long enough to wilt it before throwing it in a blender to puree. After toasting the spices and caramelizing some aromatics, the spinach and paneer go into the pot to get to know each other just long enough to break the ice, Finally the pairing is consummated with a little extra spice and coconut milk to round off the edges and bring everything together.
The resulting palak paneer is unexpectedly rich and intensely flavorful. The perfect curry for a round of naan or mound of pulao.
- Combine the nutritional yeast, lemon juice and salt in a freezer bag and then add the block of tofu. Press out as much air as possible and seal the bag. Let this marinate for at least 24 hours or up to 3 days in the refrigerator.
- Drain the tofu, and pat dry with paper towels. Slice into bite-size cubes
- Boil a large pot of water and blanch the spinach just long enough for the spinach to wilt. Alternatively you can put the washed spinach(with a little water still on the leaves) in a microwave-safe bowl, cover with plastic wrap and and microwave until the leaves wilt. Immediately plunge the blanched spinach in cold water to stop the cooking.
- Drain the spinach but do not squeeze it. Put it in a blender or food processor to puree adding a little water if necessary.
- In a large saucepan, heat the coconut oil over medium-high heat until shimmering and then add the cumin seeds and bay leaf.
- When the cumin starts popping, add the garlic and ginger and onions, sauteing until lightly browned and fragrant.
- Add the tomato, turmeric and salt and then saute until most of the liquid has evaporated from the tomatoes and the mixture is thick and chunky.
- Add the spinach puree and tofu and simmer over medium-low heat until mixture is creamy and fragrant (about 15 minutes). If the spinach is not thin enough to make a sauce, add some water.
- Adjust salt to taste and finish the palak paneer by adding the garam masala, cayenne pepper and coconut milk.
Coconut cream is the thick white stuff that floats to the top of a can of coconut milk when it's left undisturbed. You can either scoop it off from a can of coconut milk or just buy a can/carton of coconut cream.