One of the classic compliments to any prime rib with scalloped potatoes is the infamously ubiquitous creamed spinach.
Softened with lots of butter and heavy cream, salt and pepper and garlic, creamed spinach has a seat at the tables of culinarians of old, preferably atop a linen table cloth next to the caviar spoon. However, the American version of creamed spinach isn’t remotely within reach of the truly divine Saag Aloo Paneer, an Indian spiced dish of garlic, spinach, yogurt and potatoes, sautéed with onion and chunks of traditional paneer cheese, a special non-melting cheese that retains its shape when cooked. The cheese can be found at a number of Asian food markets in the Burlington area.
Saag Aloo Paneer is one of my all-time favorite Indian dishes. Rich and multi-faceted, when accompanied by warm bread it is an ultimate comfort food for anyone who enjoys a good curry.
My partner and I are massive fans of finger foods, and my variation on the combination of the two aforementioned dishes is, to me, a perfect dish to be served on a cold and rainy day. The spicy, creaminess of the spinach, paneer, potatoes and the addition of chunked tomatoes and cilantro should be eaten with careful hands, scooped with warm bread to bring aromas close to the nose and mouth for an ultrasensory experience.
Spiced cream spinach stew is one of the most romantic dishes I’ve ever made, and my partner — who is a carnivore — very much agrees, which is why I am writing this piece. He feels almost as strongly about this dish as he does about me, and the requests come at least biweekly.
Spiced cream spinach stew
Begin with your favorite cast iron, wok or my favorite: seasoned carbon steel. Add one whole sweet onion and a handful of baby potatoes to the pan with a knob of butter and a splash of peanut or olive oil. Add a pinch of good salt to sweat the onions and cook the potatoes enough to soften in line with the wilting of the spinach to come later. Cooking harder, starchier vegetables first helps even out the timeline because spinach shrinks quicker than a coward.
When the onions begin to turn translucent, add your chilies (cut with scissors) and hot pepper, sliced, along with your fresh ginger and spices. Saute briefly before adding your oyster mushrooms — cut into coins, and add a little more salt to sweat those, too. The water will help lift the caramelized spices and sugar — or fond — from the bottom of the pan and create a sauce.
That sauce, much like the wine at Thanksgiving, is going to be the key to a successful evening meal.
I always encourage people to customize their dishes, even if they are based on my recipes, to what they enjoy. I know adding 16 ounces of fresh spinach seems aggressive, but when my partner and I make this dish it usually keeps for tomorrow’s lunch as well and balances out the other quantities of flavors and ingredients in the dish well. But I mean this sincerely, unlike my teachers when I was growing up: be as creative as you like with your food.
Add the bags of spinach one at a time, stirring the rapidly-wilting spinach into the sauce as the leaves become dark emerald and soft. Once the spinach is cooked through, add your yogurt: I always advise full-fat for the flavor, but that part, again, is up to you. I find the fat adds extra creaminess that plays well with the sharp spices and chopped scallions added later.
Stir gently to combine, and you’ll soon have very soft, green lines in an otherwise cream sauce slightly bubbling and wafting spicy steam throughout your kitchen.
Cut your paneer cheese into 1-inch blocks or however small you would like, and add them to the stew. Again, they won’t melt so their consistency will end up like a cross between feta and cooked tofu. Add chunked fresh tomato and one or two chopped scallions, and stir to combine.
Just before serving, warm some soft garlic flatbread for dipping, scooping, wrapping and otherwise devouring this dish to be served in a communal bowl. Generously sprinkle a handful of fresh chopped cilantro and a drizzle of sesame oil, sprinkle of extra salt, and you’re ready to go. The consistency of the stew should be thick, rich and luscious, and is best eaten in extremely soft clothes with a warm sipping drink and possibly fresh fruit for dessert such as caramelized pineapple or cantaloupe with honey. The combination of the cream, spinach, popping skins of the baby potatoes and fruit of the tomatoes is a texture adventure with every bite.
Perfect for carnivores
When I first met my partner, I tried really hard not to fall for him almost immediately. He proved to be kind whenever kindness didn’t call, and strong enough to hold safe some of the most exciting of moments, including the desperate dash for the door, camera in hand for a fully-involved structure fire in the city, or if the vice president was visiting Lake Hortonia.
He was measured, even, and excited to explore. So instead of approaching him to ask him out, I took the far more clever tactic of hiding in the breakroom and crying into my tupperware after he heated up his lunch.
I couldn’t form sentences when near him and we were never in the same place (he was always in the newsroom, I was always covering a story out in the world) so I tried to express my crush on him by aligning with his food choices, so we would have something to talk about.
First he was vegetarian, so I brought in lots of different salads.
“Do you ever miss meat?” I’d ask.
“Oh, I’m keto now,” he’d say.
I would switch. And then switch again, when he was eating meat again. The one thing he always came around to, the one he had always loved first, was a real, medium-rare quality firehouse burger with all the trimmings.
The man is a carnivore, which is no problem for me. Surprisingly enough, though, when he doesn’t want a good burger — and even when he does — he also wants my spiced cream spinach stew, preferably with his mango chutney on the side.