FOOD DESTINATIONS: The Indian Subcontinent

This lovely image of the finished dish comes from the site

This lovely image of the finished dish comes from the site

We have a passion for what some people might think of as ‘adventurous’ cuisine. We love to try new things and find that several of them stick as perennial favorites. One of Colleen’s favorites is Palak Paneer – a spicy dish from northern India. It’s a great meal and, while not vegan, it is a non-meat dish. This dish goes together very quickly but tastes fresh and exciting, like you’ve spent all day making it. Plus, it gives the house the most amazingly spicy and wild aroma. We pair it with some jasmine or basmati rice to make a very satisfying and interesting meal.


  • 1 bag of prewashed baby spinach
  • Paneer (Fresh cheese from India  – you can substitute ½ round of Casique brand Queso Fresco or similar fresh cheese
  • 1 medium onion – minced
  • 1 Tablespoon tomato paste
  • 1 one inch wide piece of fresh ginger – minced (or 1 teaspoon powdered ginger)
  • 2-3 cloves garlic minced (or ½ teaspoon dried garlic granules)
  • 1-2 bay leaves (according to taste)

HERE YOU HAVE A CHOICE: The-mix-it-yourself spices

  • ½ teaspoon of ground cumin (or grind 1 teaspoon of cumin seed)
  • ½ teaspoon red chili flakes
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • ½ teaspoon ground turmeric

YOUR OTHER OPTION: 1 Tablespoon curry powder. Depending on your taste, you can be either generous or scant with the curry powder. In our house, we’re generous. Using curry powder adds extra spices that are not found in palak paneer but it also adds a tremendous depth of flavor.

(NOTE:) You can get wonderful curry mixtures already ground or in mixes that you can grind yourself from World Spice located behind Seattle’s famous Pike Place Market. Just click on the SPICE BLENDS tab and scroll down to ‘Curry’. There are 10 varieties to choose from. And that doesn’t include all the masalas. We particularly like the Kashmiri variety with this dish.


  • 1 teaspoon garam masala (ground)
  • ½ teaspoon mango powder called Amchoor. (we don’t always use this but it does add an interesting flavor. Again, you can get it from World Spice)
  • 2 tablespoons of ghee (or substitute 1 tablespoon of oil combined with ½ tablespoon butter)
  • 1 tablespoon cream

Cook your rice ahead of time and keep it warm.

Blanch the spinach in water for 3 minutes and then plunge into ice water to stop cooking. Drain well and squeeze it dry in a paper towel. Set aside.

Warm 1 Tablespoon of the ghee a pan* over medium high heat.

Cut the fresh cheese into approximately ½ inch cubes. Drain the cubes on paper towel to reduce spattering.

Finely mince the onion and garlic.

Fry the cheese in the ghee, turning it frequently so that you get an even golden brown color on all sides. Once you have that, remove the cheese to a plate for the time being. Be sure that you don’t have any remaining cheese bits in the ghee.

WARNING: From this point on, thing move pretty fast.

Let the pan reheat, refreshing the ghee from the reserved amount. Once it is hot, fry the spices, bay leaves, and pepper flakes. Be certain to stir them constantly so they don’t burn.

After a minute or two, remove the bay leaves and add in the onion and garlic. Keep stirring. You may need to a bit more ghee at this time. It depends on how much the spices soak up.

Add in the tomato paste, ground garam masala, and mango powder and keep stirring. If the mixture looks dry, you may need to add a bit of water to make it the consistency of gravy.

Add in the drained spinach after a minute or so. Break up the lumps so you have shreds of spinach evenly distributed around the pan. You guessed it – Keep stirring.

Add in the fried cheese and reduce the heat. Allow the mixture to cook together for a few minutes. Do not overcook it. You want that fresh green color and taste in the spinach.

Remove to a bowl and garnish it with the whole cream. Serve over steamed rice. Palak Paneer may also be eaten with chapathi or naan if you prefer to skip the rice.

Recipe variations can include adding ground fenugreek leaves (for a southern Indian flavor) and minced green chili peppers for extra snap.

*I believe in cast iron cookware. Not the fancy enameled kind, I mean cast iron. Much Indian cooking is ‘seasoned’ by plunging a super heated iron ladle into the broth. The cast iron pan gives you that wonderful taste. If you’re on a budget, don’t despair. Cast iron cookware is frequently available at local thrift stores.


If it’s not too rusty, use a scratchy pad and hot water to loosen any crud or rust on the inside.  Try to not bear down too hard. The black color is due to cooked in oil. You really want to leave that there. If it’s really rusty, bear down and be prepared to season it a couple of times with oil.

Whatever you do, NEVER use soap in cast iron. It stays in the pores and gives it a really funky taste.

After you’ve scraped and rinsed, dry the cast iron with paper towel. This will save your favorite dish towel from being ruined. Pour a bit of good quality cooking oil in the pan and spread it to all surfaces with another paper towel. Pop it into a 200° F oven and bake the oil in for a couple of hours. When the time is up, turn the oven off and allow the cast iron to cool inside it. You should end up with a relatively non stick pan that you can hand down to your grandchildren.  You may have (okay will have) to periodically reoil the pan but it’s not rocket science and it works. Trust me, years of doing this have proven the theory.

For the obsessive among us, here is the link to the Cook’s Illustrated article that tells you how to use flaxseed oil and a lot of time to polymerize the pan surface, thereby making it virtually non stick.  Someday I hope to have the time to try this but between gardening, cooking, writing, and blogging, I don’t know when that will be.


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