What a time to be alive and veg-centric. Whereas otherwise progressive baristas would have laughed you right out of their cafes for requesting something so obscure as soymilk a scant few years ago, those very same establishments now offer not only soy, but almond and even coconut creamers as well. The tide is turning and finally, for the better. It’s safe to say that veganism has officially hit the mainstream, finding greater acceptance and understanding than ever before. World Vegan Day is a powerful reminder of just how far the movement as come, and in relatively short time; the term “vegan” is only 70 years old!
In spite of all the incredible progress we’ve seen recently, I don’t take the luxury of widespread vegan options for granted. It’s still a genuine surprise and delight to find esteemed chocolatiers advertising dairy-free truffles, steakhouses offering meatless options on their menus, or, in a more concrete example, finding a vegan chef doing a demo at the largest farmers market in San Francisco.
Recently, Kevin Schuder, chef of Citizen Fox, graced the stage that typically showcases all variety of animal products and broke the mold for this locavore audience. Deftly combining a mountain of vibrant green spinach with spices and an impossibly creamy cashew base, his take on paneer saag in dip format may very well have converted a few dairy addicts.
Having attended many similar performances alongside the bustling Embarcadero marketplace with nary a taste to be had, it was a delight to fearlessly wolf down that spinach-smeared piece of toasted baguette. Better than cream cheese and traditional spinach dip combined, the tangy base truly did evoke the gently acidic notes of paneer cheese, providing a rich foil to the mild greens.
Recipe in hand, I was only able to restrain myself from snatching a second helping knowing that I could make a full batch all for myself.
Saag Paneer Spice Blend
½ Cup Whole Coriander Seeds
¼ Cup Whole Cumin Seeds
3 Tablespoons Whole Cardamom Seeds (Removed from the Pods)
3 Tablespoons Whole Black Peppercorns
4 Teaspoons Whole Fennel Seeds
2 Teaspoons Whole cloves
2 Teaspoons Mustard Seeds
1 Teaspoon Ground Cayenne Pepper
1 Teaspoon Ground Turmeric
2 Pounds Spinach, Washed
1 Medium Yellow Onion
½ Cup Canola Oil
¼ Cup Minced Garlic
¼ Cup Saag Paneer Spice Blend (Above)
2-3 Tablespoons Lemon Juice
1½ Pounds Thick, Slightly Fermented Cashew Cream
Extra Virgin Olive Oil, if Desired
Grilled Bread, for Serving
To make the spice blend: Toast the whole spices in a skillet over medium-high heat until fragrant, but not burned. Grind in a mortar and pestle or coffee grinder. Add the cayenne pepper and turmeric and mix together.
To make the dip: Blanch the spinach in salted boiling water, then chill in an ice bath. When cool, squeeze out excess moisture from the spinach and chop it finely. Julienne the onion and sauté in canola oil over medium heat. When softened and slightly caramelized, add the garlic and at least 1 tablespoon of salt, and sauté for another 2 minutes. Add at least 2 tablespoons or up to ¼ cup of the spice blend and all of the chopped spinach. After a minute, add the lemon juice and turn the heat up to high. Place the cashew cream in a medium bowl and add the hot spinach mixture, stirring rapidly to combine. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt, lemon, olive oil and/or saag paneer spice blend to taste. Slather the dip over grilled bread slices.
Makes About 12 Appetizer-Size Servings with Additional Spice Blend Leftover