10/7/11

Tofu Saag Paneer

There's this ubiquitous dish on most Indian restaurants, called saag paneer. Often times, it's hard little cubes of what feels like rubber, covered in a green goo of some kind, with about an inch and change of fat floating on top. And yet, people eat it with great relish. I don't get it.

Saag paneer, when made right, is little cubes of Farmer's cheese, deep fried, and served in a spiced spinach puree. It can be quite lovely, if you were to do things properly, but when it comes to mass quantities, the dish suffers. Fortunately for me, and the patrons of the restaurant, it improves when made vegan, and healthy. Rather than using tender, soft spinach, which should really be eaten raw, I use a combination of tender and hardy greens, like spinach, collard greens, and kale. That way, when I puree the greens together, I don't let a loose sauce as much as I get a textural wonderland. Rather than using farmer's cheese, I use little cubes of tofu, tossed in a bit of oil, and baked until they puff up into little balls. They're very cute to look at on the tray.

This way, I'm not deep frying anything, while still getting the taste and texture of deep fried tofu. And, rather than cooking down everything until it's homogenised, I cook things separately, so that they retain their texture and taste. The dish is transformed to something totally tasty, and much easier to eat with roti. That slumpy mass you get at restaurants should no longer be tolerated. Fight back!

FOR THE GREENS
10 oz (roughly 1 bunch) of spinach, washed WELL, and plunged into boiling water for 10 seconds.
8 - 12 oz kale, roughly chopped, and plunged into boiling water for 1 minute
8 - 12 oz collard greens, roughly chopped, and plunged into boiling water for 1 minute

Drain the water from the greens well. You don't need to squeeze them, but you can if you'd like. In a food processor, combine all the greens (in batches of 1 handful at a time), and pulse until they become chopped very finely. Set the greens aside in the fridge, so that they cool down.

FOR THE TOFU
2 lbs of tofu, cut into 1 cm cubes
2 tsp oil
1/4 tsp salt

Don't bother to press the tofu. Just chop it up into cubes, and toss it in the oil and salt. If you prefer, you can use a mister or a nonstick cooking spray. I prefer just using oil, because there isn't too terribly much of the stuff I'm using here. Either way, get fat and salt onto the tofu. Lay it out onto a baking sheet, lined with parchment. The parchment is important, because the tofu will want to stick. Leave plenty of room between the cubes of tofu, or else they'll go mushy instead of crispy.

FOR THE SPICES
1/2 tsp fennel seed
1 tsp cumin seed
3 cardamom pods
2 cloves
1 bay leaf
2 medium (tennish-ball sized) onions, sliced thinly (red works great, but use any onions you have)
3 - 12 cloves of garlic, minced
2-inch knob of ginger, grated
Pinch of cinnamon
Scrape of nutmeg
1 tsp of oil
salt, to taste

In a large, nonstick skillet, pour in your oil, fennel seeds, and cumin seeds. Let the lot heat over medium high heat, until you hear the seeds pop and crackle. Add the cardamom pods, cloves, and bay leaf. Sautee around until the fragrance becomes too delicious to stand anymore. Add the sliced onion, minced garlic, and ginger. Let the lot sautee over medium high heat, until the onions become lightly browned. Add the cinnamon and nutmeg. Stir everything for about 30 seconds. Add the chopped greens, and turn off the heat. Toss through to combine, making sure to thoroughly mix through the spices.

Add the cubed roasted tofu, and gently toss to combine. The tofu will become tough from the cooking, so no need to be that gentle! Just give it a toss. It'll be fine.

Now here comes the best part.

WALK AWAY!

The dish isn't ready for you yet. Now, you must exercise self-control by walking away, and letting the whole mass sit around, undisturbed, for at least an hour. Why? Because you want the tofu's skin, which formed in the oven, to permeate with the liquid from the greens and the spices and onions and such. You want the spices to mellow out a bit. You want the whole lot of it to taste and smell fantastic, while still having a bit of cohesion. You want to make a batch of roti, to be perfectly honest, and I'm giving you the chance to do that, with the excuse of, "Dino said so, so it must be right." Either way, this works out best if you make this at the beginning of your dinner preparations, and then come back to it much later, after it's sat around a bit.

I won't tell anyone if you sneak a few healthy spoonfuls, for "quality control". I do the same thing.
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