When the airborne fluff of cottonwood flowers floats on the sweet breeze of my hometown, it's my cue that the summer solstice is near, which means the spring crop of local spinach is near its peak. Those fresh, meaty leaves are a seasonal reminder of where I am, as well as what season it is, among the many benefits of eating locally. But as much as I love spinach, it can become a challenge to keep the fire burning for Popeye's little helper. That's when the other side of the world comes in handy. With a bit of knowledge and just a handful of ingredients from another hemisphere, the resulting infusion of exciting flavors will keep you eating your spinach with enthusiasm.
Specifically, I'm thinking of the northern Indian dish palak gosht, meat with spinach, for which the only ingredients that need to be imported are spices and ginger. Or the related dish palak paneer, spinach and cheese, which can be made with only those imports. Similar is saag paneer. The main difference is that the saag version includes additional greens, like mustard.
The vegetarian version contains cheese instead of meat. In both cases the sauce is dark green, as if made from pure spinach, but is actually equally tomato-based, with the green from the spinach covering up the red of the tomatoes. These recipes use spinach in ways I don't often get around to, and learning to make them can be a good way to exercise my creativity in the kitchen. The ability of a few seeds, roots, and powders to transform local ingredients into something exotic is why merchants like Marco Polo become de-facto explorers, and why spices like black pepper were once more expensive than gold.
The interwebs are full of recipes for both of these dishes, but as both can be found in my go-to cookbook for Indian cuisine, 50 Great Curries of India by Camellia Panjabi, I need look no further. Panjabi is a legendary chef and founder of a family of restaurants in London known as the Masala Zone.
Indian recipes like Panjabi's can seem overwhelming at first, as they contain so many ingredients, mostly spices. But aside from their whirlwinds of flavor, the main ingredients are few, and humble.
These recipes are edited slightly for space and clarity. Panjabi is a stickler for freshly ground spices, with the seeds being pan-toasted before grinding. It's a rule worth sticking to with Indian food.
Palak paneer (spinach with curd cheese)
¾ pint milk
½ cup yogurt
2 tsp lime juice
½ - ¾ lb of spinach
2 jalapeños (or similar small green hotties), chopped
½ tsp chopped ginger
2 Tbsp cooking oil
Pinch of fenugreek seeds
1 onion, minced or grated
1 garlic clove, chopped
¼ tsp cumin seeds
2 tomatoes, pureed
For the cheese, carefully bring the milk to near-boiling, then add yogurt and a pinch of salt. Simmer for 7-10 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool. Place a strainer over a bowl, and pour the milk through it. Press down on the curds with the back of a spoon to get the water out (or squeeze in cheesecloth).
For the spinach sauce, cook the spinach, ginger, and jalapeños in a pan with a pinch of salt and a splash of water. Allow to cool, then puree in a blender.
Heat the oil in a pan, on medium, then fry the fenugreek seeds for 30 seconds. Add the onion and fry until translucent. Add the garlic and cumin seeds. Stir them around, then add the tomato puree. When the water from the tomatoes has evaporated and the sauce thickens, add the cheese curds and spinach puree. Stir it up and serve.
Palak gosht (meat with spinach)
1 lb meat (lamb, mutton, beef or venison, as long as it's red and tender)
1 minced onion
1 ½-inch cube of ginger
2 good-sized garlic cloves
2-3 jalapeños (or similar green chiles)
½ cup yogurt
¼ + ½ tsp freshly ground cumin
½ lb fresh spinach
¼ cup cooking oil
1 cinnamon leaf (optional, because, cinnamon leaf?!? otherwise, use a bay leaf)
1 cardamom pod (preferably black)
½ teaspoon freshly ground coriander
3 tomatoes, finely chopped or pureed
pinch of nutmeg (optional)
1 chunk of butter (optional)
Puree the ginger, garlic and jalapeños in a food processor. Add the yogurt and ¼ tsp cumin powder. Marinate the lamb in this for at least an hour, preferably overnight.
Blanch the spinach for 10 or so seconds in boiling water. Puree.
Heat the oil in a pan, add the cinnamon (or bay) leaf, cardamom, and cloves. When the spices begin to brown, add the onions. Slowly fry until they start to brown. Add coriander and ½ tsp cumin powder. Stir, and add a splash of water.
Add the meat and marinade. The meat will release water as it cooks. When this moisture is nearly gone add the tomatoes, two cups water, and a teaspoon salt. Cover, and simmer on low until the moisture is again nearly gone. Add pureed spinach, cook gently for five minutes. Sprinkle with nutmeg powder, and add a chunk of butter if desired.
Both can be served with rice, or an Indian flatbread like parathas, rotis, or naan.