Chard Saag Paneer

I really can’t get behind this whole year-beginning-in-January-thing. Who’s brilliant idea was it to start the year in the middle of the darkest, chilliest, most depressing season of all? Who decided to wipe the slate clean in the dead of winter when everyone is either sick or wanting to hibernate under the duvet with a tin of cookies in one hand, a bottle of bourbon in the other, and a pile of Marx brothers DVDs?

The booze- and sugar-engorged alcoholidays are behind us, and all we have to look forward to is a crappy hallmark occasion mid-February (a.k.a. Singles Awareness Day). We’re supposed to give up all the cozy things like hot buttered rum and chocolate and butterfat at the time when we need them the most, and, in the words of Helen Fielding via Bridget Jones, “snap into self-discipline like lean teenage greyhounds.” (Not that I ‘m bitter.)

If it were up to me, the year would start on May first, when things are feeling more optimistic, what with the long days, birds singing, flowers blooming. When it’s warm enough that one doesn’t mind subsisting on salads and smoothies. When you can go for a walk or jog in the early evening and not freeze your buns off. That seems like a much more appropriate time for new beginnings, resolutions and such.

But since no one asked me, I’m offering up a compromise. This dish is primarily composed of greens – not just any greens, but the aptly named Bright Lights chard – but it’s coated in Greek whole milk yogurt and crowned with fried cheese. Fried cheese!

Saag paneer has long been my favorite Indian dish, the one I order every time I have the opportunity. It is essentially creamed spinach seasoned with warming spices and studded with chunks of firm, mild cheese. Since “saag” refers to any green, I took the liberty of making this with chard leaves, which have a mild flavor and tender texture. I make use of their pretty stems, too, in a dish inspired by a few different sources: Heidi Swanson of 101 Cookbooks, Reza Mahammad’s Rice, Spice and All Things Nice, and Smita Chandra’s From Bengal to Punjab: The Cuisines of India.

The stems get cooked with onions and warm spices until tender while the leaves are wilted, wrung of excess liquid, and stirred into the onions along with yogurt and crispy cheese cubes, then finished with lemon juice and cilantro. The whole mess gets served over aromatic rice steamed with ginger, cardamom and cinnamon. Its bright flavors and colors help perk up one’s spirit during this dark time of year.

Finish the meal with a mug of spicy chai (seasoned with a shot of bourbon, if that’s what floats your boat – it does ours). And stay tuned for the perfect dessert… January or no.

Keen on greens:

Sweet Potato, Chard and Black Bean Enchiladas
French Lentil and Spinach Soup
Quinoa, Kale and Sweet Potato Salad

One year ago:

Double Malted Hot Chocolate

Two years ago:

Cardamom Snickerdoodles

Three years ago:

Candy Cap Crème Caramels

Chard Saag Paneer

With inspiration from Heidi Swanson’s 101 Cookbooks, Reza Mahammad’s Rice, Spice and All Things Nice, and Smita Chandra’s From Bengal to Punjab: The Cuisines of India

The extra step of wilting the chard separately helps to keep the color of the greens bright; but you can add the chopped leaves directly to the stems if you prefer. The paneer I get comes in 14 ounce blocks, so I use 7 ounces per batch of saag paneer, which is on the high side of the cheese to greens ratio. Feel free to dial down the cheese factor, if you like, or make your own paneer. Halloumi makes a decent substitute; it is more flavorful, but melts more as it fries. Serve this with spiced rice (recipe below); put the rice on first, as it benefits from standing for 10-20 minutes after it cooks to absorb steam.

Update 12/17/13: I just made a version of this using roasted potatoes and cauliflower in place of the cheese – deliciousness!

Makes 4 entree-sized servings

7 ounces paneer, in half-inch cubes
2 tablespoons coconut oil (or ghee, or vegetable oil)
1 large bunch chard
1 medium yellow onion
1 1/2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger
1 teaspoon whole cumin seed
1 large clove garlic, peeled and minced
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
1/4 teaspoon chile flakes
3/4 cup greek yogurt (I used full fat, but I think any percentage would work)
1/4 cup (whole) milk
juice of half a lemon

For serving:
spiced (or other) rice (recipe below)
a handful cilantro leaves
lemon wedges

Melt the oil in a wide skillet over a medium flame until it shimmers. Add the cheese cubes in a single layer, turn the heat down to medium-low, and let the cheese brown on the first side, 3-5 minutes. It will spit and hiss, so be careful. Loosen the cheese with a thin, metal spatula, and flip each cube onto a second side. Let brown on the second side, 3-5 more minutes, then sprinkle with a bit of salt and remove the cheese to drain on a double layer of paper towels.

If the oil in the pan burned or smoked, pour it out, wipe out the pan, and add another tablespoon of oil; otherwise, you can leave the oil in the pan for the next step.

Use a sharp paring knife to slice the chard leaves off of the stems. Trim away the tips of the stems and rinse them well, rubbing off any sand. Slice each stem in half, then chop into 1/4″ lengths. Set the stems aside. Give the chard leaves a rough chop, then soak them in a large bowl of cool water, swishing occasionally to loosen any dirt or sand clinging to them.

Heat the oil over a medium flame until it shimmers, then add the chard stems, onion, ginger, cumin, garlic, chile flakes and turmeric. Saute, stirring occasionally, 5 minutes, then add 1/4 cup water and sprinkle with 1/4 teaspoon salt. Cover the pan and let the mixture sweat until the chard stems are tender, about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Meanwhile, lift the chard leaves out of their soaking water and place them in a large saucepan or soup pot with water still clinging to them. Cover the pot and place it over a medium flame. Steam the chard until the leaves are just wilted and bright green; this will only take a few minutes. Scoop the leaves into a strainer, rinse with cool water, and squeeze out most of their liquid. (Alternately, chop the raw leaves and add them directly to the stems, cover with a lid, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the leaves are tender, 10-15 minutes.)

Chop the leaves fairly finely, then stir them into the onion mixture. Stir in the yogurt, milk, and cheese cubes, gently heat through over a low flame, then remove from the heat and add the lemon juice. Taste, adding more salt or lemon juice if needed to bring up the flavors.

Serve the saag paneer over rice, garnished with cilantro and lemon wedges to squeeze over the top.

Aromatic spiced rice
1 1/4 cups long-grain white rice (preferably basmati)
1 tablespoon coconut oil (or ghee, butter, or vegetable oil)
1 cinnamon stick
5 black peppercorns
2 green cardamom pods, lightly crushed
5 coins of fresh ginger, 1/4″ thick
2 1/2 cups water
1/2 teaspoon salt

Place the rice in a fine mesh strainer and rinse under running water for 30 seconds, shaking the strainer to wash the starches off of the grains. Drain well.

Heat the oil in a medium saucepan set over a medium flame until it shimmers. Add the cinnamon, peppercorns and cardamom, then the rice, and cook for 1 minute, stirring to coat the rice and toast it evenly. Add the ginger coins, water and salt, give it a stir, then bring to a boil. Immediately reduce the heat to very low, cover the pot, and let the rice steam, without stirring, until tender and all the water has been absorbed, about 20 minutes. Remove from the heat and let stand, covered, 10-20 minutes, then gently fluff with a fork and serve. You can remove the whole spices if you like, but I like the occasional surprise of biting into a whole peppercorn. It keeps life exciting.

34 thoughts on “Chard Saag Paneer”

  1. Oh, I so agree with you about starting the new year in May! We should turn this into a movement and recruit supporter for our cause – I bet a lot of people feel that way.
    Best, Georgiana

  2. I'm in! Spring is Nature's new year and I'm with Her! Ancient cultures always celebrated Spring as a new beginning and the Persians (Iranians) still do. Eggs at Easter are a holdover from the fertility religion of the Goddess which the Christians usurped in their attempt to eradicate it. And Passover was the holiday the Hebrews used to try and do the same. HA!
    The Goddess lives… :)

    BTW, wikipedia and other sources say that January was named for the Roman god of doorways, entrances and exits…Janus. So that makes sense. But somewhere I read that a Roman emperor, who was named after Janus, wanted this month to be the first month of the year, the way some people have to be first in line or always the center of attention, etc. That also sounds plausible considering the kind of people who became Roman emperors!

    But whatever month it is, the above delicacy sounds amazing! I just don't think it's fair that I have to read the whole mouth-salivating thing then not get to taste it. Why don't you live next door, dag nabit! ;) thanks for the inspiration, darlin'…

    1. Mom- this is fantastic information! Leave it to some egomaniacal d-bag to screw everything up for the rest of us. Janus totally deserves to have the word "anus" in his name.

      I wish you lived next door, too – I would totally make you chard saag paneer. :)

    2. "Anus?" Really? That's how your mind works? You're too funny. Cracked me up! :)

      And thanks for the offer of the Saag…one day I'll take you up on that!

      I totally have to eat Indian food today…love you!

  3. Your Chard Saag Paneer looks amazing. I've had Palak (spinach) Paneer before and loved it, using the chard is a great ides and so colorful. Can't wait to try.

    I also liked your rant (it made me giggle). I agree the new year should start in the spring. I look forward to checking back in often.

  4. We have a garden full of rainbow chard at the moment…might have to make the cheese (panir) but I am going to have to make this. Here in Tasmania, Australia we are in the mid throws of summer. Its hot…its dry…its fire central and the world is smoky and arid and I find myself lusting after winter and its lean clean lack of outdoor activities and the chance to curl up and read a good book near the wood stove…the grass is ALWAYS greener! ;)

    1. The grass is indeed always greener! A friend of mine just got back from a trip to New Zealand, and you can bet I was green with envy that she got to escape the dark and cold. The heat, fires and smoke in Tasmania do not sound like fun, however. Hoping it ends soon, and that you get to enjoy a more moderate summer!

      Ps. Paneer is not hard to make – it's mostly a matter of schlepping home a bunch of milk. I did it once under guidance, and it turned out well, save for the fact that I scalded the milk, and the finished cheese was full of brown, caramelized flecks – not ideal! So stir that milk as it heats gently, and you will be fine. Be sure to come back here and let me know how it goes. :)

    2. Being an ex-pat Kiwi in SF myself, I'm still getting my head around cold Xmas and New Years. New Years is all about the beaches, rivers and finding the shadiest tree to sleep under. Picnics and cold beers thanks!

      I'm happily following Heidi though as she keeps everything in season so I don't confuse my upside down head. I like this interesting twist on the Saag Paneer. I have always been a very traditional Saag Paneer maker as it is one of my favourite dishes and I can eat it for days!

      I am lazy though. I do buy the paneer and it gives me a great excuse to stop by the Indian store. Mmmmmmmmmmm.

  5. We always had chard instead of spinach in South Africa. We even called it spinach. The best way to wash it is to use hot water, it does not wilt it but gets all the grit out. You could just add the leaves to the stalks and wilt them in the same pan. We then snip them with a pair of scissors.

  6. Can't wait to try this!

    You definitely belong here in sunny Australia, where Christmas and New Year's are very warm indeed!

    Although the disadvantage is, we have absolutely no excuse not to stick to our new year's resolutions! I certainly haven't quite snapped into self-discipline this year – oops!

  7. and…drum roll please…i finally tried this last night. LOVED it. I wondered why you had the extra step of wilting the greens first which i skipped in favor of the faster sauteing route, but now i see that wilting would add just that little extra kick. I used rainbow chard and this was incredibly yum. I mean, I used my own know-how on the spices since I grew up with the traditional dish. But i usually stay away from making it because it feels so useless to have to puree the *damn* spinach. But chopping the stems finely and roughly chopping up the leaves…all the flavor clung to the vegetable even more. My husband loved it too. Also used coconut milk and didn't bother frying the paneer up first. Thank you. This is a keeper.

  8. Monisha here. Wanted to share that I remade this dish for a friend who has to be more strict than me about dairy-free. Guess what I substituted for the paneer? that's right, sweet potatoes. What is it with me and sweet potatoes and greens this winter. Obviously was not "saag paneer" but really tasty in its own right. Wonder what you think? Also I am completely hopped up on chard as a result of this recipe–using it in omelettes and anything I can think of! Thanks.

  9. Hi, what could you substitute for paneer that isn't tofu? I have a hard time finding paneer and my family isn't very tofu friendly!

    1. Hi there! My friend Monisha used sweet potatoes instead of paneer, which sounds delicious to me! You could cube and roast them in the oven coated in olive oil and a bit of salt, or do the same with regular potatoes, or maybe cauliflower. You can also use halloumi or grilling cheese, and there's a link in the recipe header to a tutorial on making your own paneer if you're feeling adventurous. Please let me know what you end up trying. :)

  10. Dancing in the kitchen tonight! This is our first recipe from your blog. I've been saving it for a special occasion. Last year tonight was the eve of Mike's proposal in Florence. Excited!

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