Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Saag Paneer (Cheese in Spinach Sauce)

When we took our family to India for a wedding in 2008, many people asked me, "What did your kids eat?" My response was always, "The food."

The follow-up was often similar- something like, "My kids would never eat the food." Or, "It's too spicy for my kids."

But, consider this...children raised in India have no problem eating "Indian food." To them it's just "food." It's really all about exposure. You eat what you are used to.

While I always intended to feed my children a wide variety of foods, my son ,"D," taught me that I could do it much earlier than I had thought. When D was about 16 months old, my husband and I took him to an Indian restaurant. We were still bringing food for him at this point, so we fed him first and then ate when our food arrived. We had taught D a few signs to make communication easier. He kept pointing to his dad's plate and making the sign for "eat." We were hesitant to give him any because it was pretty spicy. We finally gave in and dipped  a piece of nan (bread) into the sauce for him to taste. His eyes opened wide and a smile spread across his face. Then he began to forcefully sign the word "more." He was hooked!

Why were we bringing food for our toddler to a restaurant?  From then on, we ordered off the menu, most of the time sharing whatever we ordered with D.  (A note I can't go without saying...Why are children's menus so terrible? Chicken fingers and french fries are not healthy foods for children. We almost always order adult meals and share them).

I know there are children who have particular dietary needs, allergies,  or food aversions related to special needs. I know how hard it is to work within those needs and restrictions. I feel for you. I feel fortunate that our children do not have any dietary restrictions. Obviously, I'm not talking about children with special dietary needs in this post.

Consider for a moment, though... could your child(ren) stand to branch out? Could you?

If you're feeling brave, try this recipe from The Essential Asian Cookbook. Now is the perfect time because spinach and garlic are in season. Make it an event by involving your children in the cooking.

(Lentil) Dhal on left. Saag Paneer on right
Saag Paneer (Panir)
Prep time: 20 min (plus 3 hours standing if you make the cheese)
Total cooking time: 30 minutes

Note: This recipe calls for making cheese. It's actually quite simple, but you could choose to skip the cheese. You could saute some boneless chicken breast pieces and add them to the sauce instead of the cheese. That's how I started because I was a bit afraid of making cheese. Now I don't know what I was worried about!

For the cheese:
2 quarts (1/2 gallon) of milk. (NOT Ultra High Temperature Pasteurized. Many organic milks are UHT, so check the label. It won't work if UHT)
Juice of 1 lemon (4 Tablespoons juice)
2 Tablespoons yogurt
cheesecloth (Find it in the grocery store near utensils/gadgets)

For the Saag (sauce):
1 lb spinach, washed and tough stems removed.
2 cloves garlic
3/4 inch fresh ginger, grated
2 green chillies, chopped (Wear gloves. If you don't like spicy food, try one chili)
1 medium onion, chopped
2 Tablespoons ghee or oil (ghee is clarified butter- found in international food aisle of most groceries)
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
3 Tablespoons yogurt
1/2 to 1 cup water (use as much as needed to get the right thickness of sauce for your liking)
1/2 cup cream (I cut this to 1/4)

To make the cheese:
  1. Heat the milk in a large pan until just boiling. Reduce heat, add lemon juice and yogurt, and stir until it starts to curdle. This usually happens almost immediately.
  2. Remove pan from heat and allow to cool for 5 minutes or so.
  3. Line a colander with cheesecloth. Pour curd mixture into the colander and allow to sit until most of the liquid has drained.
  4. Gather the corners of the cheese cloth and squeeze as much moisture as possible from the curd. Return it to the colander. Rest the colander on a pan or bowl to catch moisture and let it sit in a cool place (a cool basement or fridge if it's very warm) for 3 hours.
  5. Cut  the cheese into 1 to 1 1/2 inch cubes.
To make the Saag (sauce):

  1. Steam the spinach over simmering water until tender. (This takes just a few minutes.  The spinach should still be bright green but tender).
  2. Squeeze out excess moisture and chop coarsely.
  3. Place the garlic, ginger, chili and onion in a food processor and process to make a paste.
  4. Heat ghee or oil in a wok (or large saute pan). Add the paste and cook about 5 minutes. Add salt, cumin, nutmeg, and water. Simmer for 5 minutes.
  5. Transfer the mixture to a food processor. Add the spinach and process until smooth.
  6. Return it to the wok, add the chopped cheese and cream, and simmer about 10 minutes until heated through.
  7. Serve with rice.
As the adult in your home, what foods do you expose your children to? Are you intimidated by food from other cultures? Could you start to branch out and try some new things? If you don't like to cook, are there any interesting restaurants nearby you that you could try? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Related posts:
Cora Cooks Pancit
A Passion for Pesto
Shurit Ads (Egyptian Lentil Soup)

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