Saag Paneer (Indian Spinach and Cheese)

Saag PaneerCrazy Cravings
Cravings are weird. Sometimes when I have a craving I am able to fake my way out of it by eating something similar or, strangely, just by drinking some water. Other times that craving hits and there is no denying it. When that happens, I can get a little psycho…

The most recent incident happened when I had some boneless chicken thighs that had to be used so I decided to marinate them in tandoori paste and throw them on the grill. This prompted the search for something that would complement the chicken as a side dish and thus my wicked craving for saag paneer was born.

As luck would have it, I had everything I would need to make the saag on hand but the paneer was a different story. Although making paneer is relatively easy, I did not have the whole milk needed nor, frankly, did I have the time. But, there was no way I could NOT have this side dish. Just thinking about it was making my mouth water. So I ventured to my local store (Alas, I do not live close to Piedmont Grocery) to see if, by chance, they had paneer cheese. No dice.

Panicking, I thought maybe I could cheat with something from the frozen section…but that was a non-starter as well. (Mainly because I am a food snob and just couldn’t bring myself to do it.) By now I’m hangry and frustrated. So, I took a chance and went with those small bite-sized balls of mozzarella. Sigh.

I’m not saying it was bad. It wasn’t. It wasn’t great either. But, it did satisfy my craving and cure me of my food-induced craving mania.

Below is my Saag recipe that also includes a recipe for making paneer. While this recipe may not be super authentic, it is quite tasty. And, can actually be made during the week for those who make dinner to relax. I would recommend playing with the level of spice. Some in my family found it too spicy and others said it wasn’t spicy enough…

Saag Paneer Recipe
Yields 4 Servings
This recipe for the classic Indian spinach and cheese dish uses frozen spinach which is much easier than fresh. If you have extra time and choose to use fresh, first steam it, chop it and squeeze out the excess water. 

For the Saag
1 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 teaspoon cayenne
Kosher salt
3 tablespoons plus 1 1/2 tablespoons ghee or vegetable oil
12 ounces paneer, (Indian cheese, either store-bought or recipe follows), cut into 1-inch cubes
1 16-ounce package of frozen chopped spinach or 2.5 pounds of fresh
1 medium white onion, finely chopped
1 (1-inch thumb) ginger, peeled and minced (about 1 tablespoon)
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 large green Serrano chili, finely chopped (seeds removed)
1/2 teaspoon garam masala
2 teaspoons ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 cup plain yogurt, stirred until smooth

For the Paneer
Homemade Indian Cheese
8 cups whole milk
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice, plus more as needed


Make the Paneer
Line a large colander with a double layer of cheesecloth allowing it to drape over the sides. Set the colander in your sink.

Place a large, wide pot over medium heat and bring the milk to a gentle boil stirring frequently to avoid burning the bottom. This will take some time to reach a boil.

Add the lemon juice and turn the heat down to low. Stir gently/ The curd will begin to form almost immediately as they separate from the whey.

Remove the pot from the heat and carefully pour the contents into the cheesecloth-lined colander. Gently rinse with cool water to wash away the lemon flavor.

Grab the ends of the cheesecloth and twist the ball of cheese to squeeze out the excess whey. Tie the cheesecloth to your kitchen faucet and allow the cheese to drain for about 5 minutes.

Twisting the ball to compact the cheese further and place it on a plate with the twisted part of the cheesecloth on the side. Set a second plate on top. Weigh the second plate down with a heavy pot. Transfer your cheese press to the refrigerator and let it sit for about 20 minutes.

Cut the paneer into 1-inch cubes.

In a large bowl, whisk together the turmeric, cayenne, 1 teaspoon salt and 3 tablespoons oil. Gently, drop in the cubes of paneer and gently toss, taking care not to break the cubes. Allow the cubes to marinate while you prep the rest of your ingredients.

Prepare the Saag
Thaw the spinach in the microwave in a microwave-safe dish for 5 minutes on high, then chop it very finely with your knife.

Place a large nonstick skillet over medium heat, and add the paneer as the pan is warming. In a couple of minutes give the pan a toss; each piece of paneer should be browned on one side. Fry another minute or so, and then remove the paneer from the pan and place it onto a plate.

Add the remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons ghee or oil to the pan. Add the onions, ginger, garlic and chili pepper.

Sauté the mixture until it’s evenly toffee-colored (about 15 minutes). If it seems the mixture is drying out and burning, add a couple of tablespoons of water.

Add the garam masala, coriander and cumin. If you haven’t already, sprinkle a little water to keep the spices from burning. Cook, stirring often, until the scent of the spices becomes toasted (about 3 to 5 minutes).

Add the spinach and incorporate the spiced onion mixture into the spinach. Add a salt to taste and 1/2 cup of water. Cook for about 5 minutes with the lid off while stirring.

Turn off the heat. Add the yogurt just a little at a time to keep it from curdling. Once the yogurt is well mixed into the spinach, gently add the paneer. Turn the heat back on, cover and cook until everything is warmed through (about 5 minutes).

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