With much hesitation, and some gentle coaxing to convince my parents, I took a year off between college and medical school. For so many reasons, this was one of the best decisions I ever made. During the year, I spent the late-spring and summer volunteering at an urban farm. Yes, an urban farm, a farm in the actual city of Chicago. The farm is called, City Farm, and they are an incredible organization that takes empty lots in the city, fills them with incredible soil, and grows beautiful, organic produce. It was a wonderful experience. I had hardly ever gardened, let alone dealt with a near 1 acre lot, and they were so welcoming and taught me so much. There was something special about kneeling on rich, black soil pulling weeds out from amongst the beets, all while the incredible Chicago skyline loomed overhead. Shortly after moving to Portland, my cousin (and incredible chef) Kusuma, told me about an urban farm in Portland. I was intrigued, and after I learned that they had a CSA, decided to sign up! I wholeheartedly believe in the mission of urban farms (even though I still don’t do much gardening) and this seemed a good way to support the cause. The farm in Portland is called Blue House Greenhouse Farm and thus far, the produce has been absolutely incredible! So incredible that I’ve been forcing my colleagues to try the greens! So incredible wasting even a single leaf seems unthinkable! But we’ve received a lot of leaves, so I wanted to make something that would both showcase their deliciousness and allow us to use them up. This is my humble offering: a non-traditional riff on palak paneer.
As I’ve mentioned before, my family is Gujarati. Each region of India has its distinctive cuisine. Even different cities have their own cuisines and communities within those cities have their own signature dishes. This dish is based on a Punjabi dish, but is my riff on the way that my (Gujarati) aunt makes it. Traditionally, palak paneer is made with spinach (palak) and paneer. I decided to lighten things up a bit and substitute the paneer with tofu. I then fried the tofu, so I’m not sure how much lighter it actually made things, but it certainly seems lighter in my tummy. I also eliminated the cream that’s typically used to finish this dish, and instead opted to thicken it with more onions and tomatoes than usual. The end result is a totally non-traditional, deeply savory spinach sauce punctuated by the deliciousness of fried tofu. The spinach base is very easy. The onions are sauteed in oil infused with cumin until they are deeply golden brown. Then, add tomatoes, the Indian “holy trinity”, some tomato paste to amp up the tomato flavor and stew them until the tomatoes have reduced and the oil starts to separate. Then coarsely chopped spinach, a splash of water, a splash of milk, and a pat of butter, blend it all up using an immersion blender, toss in the fried tofu, and call it a delicious dinner! This dish, despite its relative ease, is probably not the best weeknight dinner, because all the steps do take some time, so make it on a weekend, maybe?
A word about the tofu: The tofu should be relatively dry when you fry it to avoid big sputters and splatters. I used to press the whole block of tofu to dry it out, until I read this article on Serious Eats that pointed out the silliness and inefficiency of pressing the whole block if you’re just going to end up cutting it into pieces! I immediately felt quite foolish for pressing the whole block for so many years. I converted to Kenji’s method and have not looked back. A block of tofu fits perfectly between my two quarter sheet pans, and once I weigh it down with some cans, it dries very quickly and is perfect to fry! I hope you enjoy my completely non-traditional riff on palak paneer. Also, please look around in your area for other farms doing similar amazing urban farming ventures and support them. It totally shows how a tiny space in the middle of tall buildings can make something so incredible, fresh, and flavorful!
Savory Indian Spinach with Fried Tofu ~ Palak "Paneer"
|Prep:||Cook:||Yield: serves 4||Total:|
A non-traditional, but very delicious version of palak paneer with a rich spinach base and fried tofu.
- 1 14 oz block of extra firm tofu
- 2 Tbsp canola oil + enough needed to fry the tofu
- 1 tsp cumin seeds
- 2 medium yellow onions, diced
- 2 roma tomatoes, diced
- 1 lb spinach leaves, cleaned and coarsely chopped
- 1 tsp grated ginger
- 1 tsp finely minced green chilis (jalapeños or serranos)
- 1/2 tsp crushed garlic
- 1 Tbsp tomato paste
- 1 Tbsp jowar (sorghum) flour, or all purpose flour
- 1/4 cup whole milk
- 1/4 cup water
- 1 Tbsp butter
- To prep the tofu:
- Cut into 1inch x 1 inch x 0.5 inch pieces, but it doesn't have to be exact. Line a baking sheet or a plate with a double layer of paper towels. Place the tofu in a single layer on top. Put an additional double layer of paper towels on top of the tofu. Place a baking sheet or plate on top and weigh down with some cans. Allow the liquid to be squeezed out for about 20 minutes, and change the paper towels once half way through.
- To fry the tofu:
- You can do this at any point during the cooking process. I did it while my onions and tomatoes were cooking. Heat a large cast iron skillet with about 1/2-1 inch of neutral frying oil over medium high heat. Check periodically by holding a piece of tofu in tongs and lowering the corner into the oil. If it starts to sizzle, the oil is ready.
- Carefully place the tofu pieces in a single layer in the oil. You will likely need to do this in batches. When the bottom side is golden brown, flip over and cook the other side until golden brown. Transfer using a spider strainer or heat proof slotted spoon to a paper towel lined plate and allow the oil to drain. Fry the remaining tofu in the same fashion. Set aside until ready to incorporate into the spinach.
- For the spinach:
- Heat the 2 Tbsp of oil over medium high heat in the bottom of a heavy saucepan. When the oil shimmers, add the cumin. Allow to cook until aromatic and just barely darkened in color. Add the diced onion, and stir well. Keep cooking and stirring regularly until golden brown, about 15-20 minutes. You want them to be rich and sweet, but not quite caramelized. Also, don't allow them to burn at all.
- Once the onions are golden brown, add the tomatoes and stir well. Add the salt, tomato paste, chilis, ginger, and garlic and cook down until the tomatoes have fully broken down, and oil starts to separate from the mixture, about 3-5 minute. The oil will appear as a golden sheen on the bottom of the saucepan. Add the jowar or all purpose flour and cook stirring frequently for another 2-3 minutes.
- Add the coarsely chopped spinach, and stir well to coat with the onion and tomato spice blend. Cook until it wilts and turns a darker shade of green. Add the milk, water, and butter, and allow to heat, but not simmer about 2 minutes. Using an immersion blender, coarsely blend the spinach together. Taste, and add more salt if needed.
- Add the fried tofu and stir to fully coat. Taste and adjust the seasoning again, as adding the tofu may mean adding a bit more salt. Serve and enjoy!
To make this vegan: Substitute the whole milk with coconut milk and the butter with coconut oil or another fat. Or just eliminate the butter element all together!
Goes well with Indian flatbread, rice, on top of toast, as a side to many things, or just out of a bowl.