Perfect Palak Paneer

Pearlescent white cubes floating in an emerald sea, the appearance of palak paneer is like nothing else. Sometimes the green might be a more muted, or even downright swampy hue, but somehow it still shines all the same. Instantly recognizable in any shade, it’s a dish to win over the fickle hearts of vegetable-haters, packing in a mega dose of dark leafy greens almost by accident. It manages to taste amazing in spite of AND because of the massive quantity of spinach involved.

Hailing from one of the most fertile regions on Earth, it’s not a stretch to imagine farmers throwing pounds of spinach into a pot, trying to wilt down the harvest into a more manageable output. Consider it the Punjabi version of creamed spinach, rich with sauteed onions and coconut milk. Vibrantly spiced without becoming overly spicy in terms of scoville units, you can smell it simmering on the stove from a mile away.

Naturally vegetarian, the protein at the heart of this dish is sometimes described as Indian cottage cheese, but that’s only a fitting description of paneer’s flavor. Mild, soft yet spongy and sliceable, the similarities it shares with tofu are unmistakable. While I’ve successfully swapped the two in the past with minimal adaptation, there’s always room for improvement.

That’s where Sugimoto shiitake powder comes in, building incremental umami flavor to enhance the cheesy notes of the nutritional yeast, creating a more impactful savory taste that could rival that of curdled dairy. The magic is in that marinade, disarmingly simple and undeniably savory.

How much spinach does it take to make palak paneer?

If you’ve ever cooked fresh spinach, you already know it takes a truckload to yield a single forkful once it touches the heat. That’s why I typically like to start with frozen spinach in this recipe, which only needs to be drained of excess liquid before it’s ready to use. Otherwise, here are some basic guidelines for spinach usage:

  • 1 Pound Fresh Spinach = 10 Ounces Frozen Spinach
  • 1 Pound Fresh Spinach = About 10 Cups
  • 1 Pound Fresh, Steamed Spinach / 10 Ounces Frozen Spinach, Thawed and Drained = 1 1/2 Cups

That means for this recipe, you’ll want to start with a little over 19 ounces (let’s round it to 20 to be safe,) or about 20 cups in volume. That said, there’s no such thing as too much when it comes to spinach here. Feel free to add more if you have it.

What’s the difference between palak paneer and saag paneer?

All palak is saag, but not all saag is palak. “Palak” means spinach in Hindi, whereas “saag” can refer to any sort of leafy greens. Saag might include one or many of the following:

  • Arugula
  • Kale
  • Mustard greens
  • Collard greens
  • Bok choy
  • Chard
  • Beet greens
  • Turnip greens
  • Fenugreek
  • And yes, spinach!

To brown or not to brown?

Once marinated, the tofu paneer can be enjoyed as is, without further cooking. In fact, I like keeping mine in the fridge until just before serving for a cooling contrast to the hot spinach curry. It’s just as enjoyable with a gentle sear on the outsides, crisping and caramelizing the edges for more textural contrast instead. You can pan fry or air fry the cubes very briefly using high heat without adding more oil.

How can you serve palak paneer?

Enjoy palak paneer, hot with basmati rice, roti, naan, or chapati. On particularly sweltering summer days, though, I happen to think this is a great dish to enjoy cold, straight out of the fridge. Like all curries, the complex blend of spices continues to develop, blend, and bloom over time. Leftovers are unlikely for this recipe though, so you may want to preemptively double it. There’s no such thing as too much spinach when you have such a crave-worthy formula for palak paneer in your recipe arsenal.

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The Rice of Royalty

There is no singular definition of biryani. To think that the dish is just seasoned rice with either meat or vegetables is a gross over-simplification, if not an outright mistake. Aside from the vast differences between southern and northern Indian cuisine, no two cooks make it the same way, and in truth, no cook makes it the same way each time, either. Born into royalty around the 16th century, it shares many qualities with humble pulao or pulav, AKA pilaf, but is distinctly, clearly an elevated form of the concept.

Biryani is an entree, the main event of a meal unveiled with great fanfare, whereas pulao is merely a side, even if it contains a complete protein. Speaking for itself with more complex and stronger spices, a proper biryani commands all the attention of the eater, acting as both dinner and entertainment in one. Rice is always at the foundation, but everything else is up for debate.

Given all the disagreements about what a biryani should be, developing a proper recipe is a near impossible task. As an American, I can never claim that my take on the time-honored tradition is even remotely accurate, authentic, or worthy of being called the “best.” I can only offer inspiration to try biryani, of any sort at all, to enjoy a taste of the single most popular food across the entire Indian subcontinent. Honor the source, but don’t forget to have fun with it and cater to your own tastes. That’s how food continues to evolve in our interconnected world, right?

Hyderabadi chicken biryani seemed to me the easiest, most recognizable overseas, and widely loved variation to start with. While it does demand low and slow cooking, it’s layered with spices in a simple, logical way that’s more manageable than most. Rose water and saffron create the signature, luxurious flavor, perfumed with floral notes that mingle and fuse with the spices for a full aromatic experience. Par-cooked rice meets marinated proteins to end with a perfectly cooked, tender bite all the way through.

In a move that should surprise precisely no one, my take is a clear break with tradition. Coconut oil provides a dairy-free equivalent to ghee, while vegan yogurt of any variety, be it oat, soy, almond, coconut, or other, is a seamless swap. For the meat of the matter, finely sliced Sugimoto koshin shiitake imitates the shredded texture of stewed chicken. Their inherently, unmistakably umami flavor only adds to the illusion. I prefer the koshin variety here for their expansive, flat caps that create a similarly meaty sensation when shredded, creating a more satisfying experience overall.

Much of this recipe is just a waiting game. Soaking the shiitake in water overnight to properly rehydrate them and bring out the full range of umami within is essential, as is the slow marinating process in the dairy-free yogurt mixture. While most people credit this step with creating more tender meat, there’s more happening here that also applies to plants. The acidic properties make it a great carrier for other seasonings, helping all those great spices to infuse deep within the mushrooms. Edible art like that can’t be rushed.

What makes a great biryani?

While taste is subjective, there are certain unifying characteristics of a good biryani that remain consistent across the globe:

  • Basmati rice is a non-negotiable. No other variety has the same delicate fragrance and texture. Each grain should remain separate and fluffy but simultaneously moist and sticky. It’s hard to describe, but you know it when you taste it.
  • Seasonings should be balanced, moderately spiced and nuanced with bites of sweetness, saltiness, herbaceousness, and tartness. No one taste should stand out above the rest; the ultimate goal is flavor harmony.
  • Kokumi, or the sensation of richness, often associated with fat, is essential. That’s why it’s traditionally lavished with ghee for that lingering feeling of extravagance. Yes, you can reduce the amount of oil and still enjoy a great biryani… But it won’t be the best biryani.

How can you serve biryani?

Think of biryani as the original bowl-in-one. No one will walk away from the table hungry if that’s the only dish on it. That said, it’s nice to have small accompaniments such as:

Homemade biryani is a physical manifestation of love. It takes time, effort, reasonable cooking skills, and a well-stocked spice rack to pull off such a feat. Sharing biryani with someone makes a clear, unmistakable statement, whether those feelings are spoken or not. Saying “I love you” is redundant when biryani is on the table.

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Koftaesque

Some would describe kofta as the naturally vegetarian equivalent to meatballs, but that’s like calling a croissant a dinner roll. While there may be some common thread between the two, such a statement really misses the mark. Some kofta are actual meatballs, made of beef or lamb, appearing in the Middle East and Southeast Asia in myriad dishes. When we’re talking about malai kofta, however, these balls are more closely related to a fried potato dumpling, if you needed to make comparisons.

Though firmly categorized as restaurant food or a dish for special occasions, there’s no reason why you can’t take matters into your own hands. In fact, it’s necessary given that the name itself, malai, implies vast amounts of heavy cream, creating the rich curried sauce it’s best known for. Let’s not forget that it takes more than just pure potatoes to make a compelling kofta; namely, paneer adds subtly salty, cheesy taste, along with an extra dose of dairy.

As a fledgling food lover and young vegan, such delicacies tortured me to no end. Proudly offered as the height of meatless Indian cuisine, I could only wonder what I was missing while digging into my trustworthy order of masoor dal. The fact that it was just out of reach, vegetarian but not vegan, only added to the allure.

Making vegan malai kofta is a snap!

  • A simple swap would be to replace the heavy cream with coconut milk in most conventional recipes. Personally, I prefer to make cashew cream, blending in some of the aromatics to create a consistent, natural harmony throughout the sauce.
  • Tofu, the ultimate chameleon of the plant-based pantry, provides a seamless substitute for paneer while enhancing the nutritional profile overall. Down with cholesterol and up with protein!
  • Ghee, AKA clarified butter, is often a signifier of wealth and luxury, but coconut oil provides all the same decadence. In truth, you could use any neutral oil such as avocado oil, rice bran oil, or grapeseed oil, and no one would be the wiser.

As with all of Indian cuisine, there’s plenty of room for interpretation with malai kofta.

Best known for having a luscious, silky sauce infused with subtly sweet spices and a savory tomato base, this version is considered Punjabi, drawing influence from neighboring Pakistan in true melting pot fashion. Glowing orange from the mixture of cream and tomatoes simmered together over low and slow heat, this is the malai kofta most people would expect to see.

Lesser known is the Mughlai version, comparatively colorless with a mild and subtly, naturally sweet white gravy. Raw cashews are a considerable component in the original version, making the transition over to a fully vegan cream sauce an easy task. Brilliantly seasoned without being overtly spicy, it’s a delicate balance of flavors that could genuinely pair well with anything. This is where the Sugimoto shiitake powder really shines, tempered along with the other spices to bloom with a depth of umami flavor.

Palak kofta, an unofficial variant, is a painless solution for eating your daily recommended allowance of greens. Spinach is the headliner, but the flavor comes from equally verdant fresh cilantro and mint. I like to simmer this one lightly to retain the bright green color, rather than turning up the heat to a full boil, quickly transforming the dish into a rather swampy concoction.

If malai kofta are dumplings, personally, I expect a filling

Granted, it’s less common and certainly not mandatory for a properly seasoned kofta, crispy on the outside and buttery on the inside, like a luscious bite of fried mashed potatoes, but I love the idea of adding a tiny little hidden morsel in the middle. Finely chopped donko shiitake caps and stems lend an impossibly meaty bite, while a scant measure of raisins contribute a sweetness so faint, so delicate, that you’d never pinpoint the source if no one told you. Yes, you can omit the raisins, and the filling entirely if must, but try it as written at least once. You might be pleasantly surprised if you’re open to the experience.

Restaurant-style malai kofta is an absurdly decadent entree, reserved only for special occasions. On the other hand, this homemade vegan version, enhanced with Sugimoto shiitake, makes any day seem like a special occasion.

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Devil in Disguise

Of all the pasta shapes in the world, which do you think is the worst, and why is it always angel hair? Meant to approximate the gossamer-thin strands of hair that only an angel could boast, such a divine name is entirely antithetical to its behavior on the plate. Let cooked noodles sit for just a second too long and all hell will break loose. Suddenly, those golden threads transform into bloated, tangled knots of dough. Gummy, gluey, supersaturated with sauce, it’s like they never even knew the term “al dente.”

Angel hair, AKA capellini, has never been my first choice. Nor would it be my second, third, fourth… I think you get the picture. It barely even registers on my hierarchy of pasta, and yet, I recently ended up with a box in my pantry. My trusty pasta maker went down at exactly the same time there was an apparent pasta shortage in local stores, so my choice was angel hair or nothing. Out of desperation, I said my prayers and tried to trust in fate.

One benefit to angel hair is that it does cook quickly; even more quickly than most manufacturers suggest. Start testing it after one minute at a full boil, leaving it on the heat for no longer than two. Then, overall success depends entirely on not just draining out the hot liquid, but then rinsing it in cold water. While this would be a sin for most noodles, stripping away the excess starch necessary for making rich sauces that cling as a velvety coating, it’s a sacrifice we must make for preserving any toothsome texture.

General advice is to pair angel hair with only the lightest, most delicate of sauces, such as pesto or plain olive oil. I’m sorry, but is an eternity in heaven supposed to be this boring? If we have to eat angel hair, I think it’s time we embrace a more devilish approach.

Seitan is the obvious protein of choice; what else is as wickedly savory, heart, and downright decadent in the right sauce? Speaking of which, this one is scant, just barely coating each strand while cranking up the flavor to full blast. There’s no need to drown the noodles in a watered-down dressing when this concentrated, fiery seasoning mix does the trick. Spiked with gochujang and smoked paprika, it glows a demonic shade of red, balancing out heat with nuanced flavor.

To embrace angel hair is to accept a more fiendish path to salvation. Don’t be afraid; a little seitan worship never hurt anyone.

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Keema Curry for Keeps

To define shiitake as a Japanese ingredient would be correct, but also incredibly shortsighted. Umami transcends all cuisines and cultural boundaries, whether it’s added in the form of aged cheeses, seaweed, soy sauce, tomatoes, kimchi, green tea, and beyond. Shiitake can amplify those essential ingredients, harmonizing and accentuating their inherently rich flavors. What sets Sugimoto Shiitake apart from other umami powerhouses is the clarity and quality of savory depth, in addition to its uniquely meaty texture.

Previously, we’ve explored primarily western dishes like hearty hamburgers and comforting meatballs, bolstered with this plant-based dynamo. It’s about time we shifted focus to some more spicy fare. India, with an extensive history of vegetarianism, is ripe for an umami revolution.

Immediately, I thought of keema curry. Keema means “minced meat” in Urdu, which usually translates to ground lamb, goat, or sometimes beef when it comes to curry. The protein isn’t the defining factor of this dish, though; it’s the intense blend of pungent spices, tempered over a hot stove and then simmered gently, which unlocks a bold new world of flavor.

This is a great opportunity to use up any extra shiitake stems you might have been saving from other recipes. Minced finely, they add an ideal toothsome texture that approximates ground meat, working in concert with the walnuts and lentils to make a satisfying plant protein. Each bite is layered with nuanced, contrasting, yet complimentary textures and flavors using this easy approach.

How Can You Made Keema Curry Your Own?

No two cooks make the same exact keema curry. Spices are always highly subjective, so don’t be afraid to season to taste. There are plenty of other options to explore, including:

  • For a lower-carb recipe, you can either omit the potatoes or swap them for fresh cauliflower florets.
  • Bump up the beefy experience by using a meatless ground beef substitute instead of lentils. Be sure to brown it along with the onion before proceeding with the recipe.
  • If you’re working with a limited spice rack, you can use about 3 – 4 tablespoons garam masala instead of the whole and ground individual spices.
  • When tomatoes are in season, go ahead and use fresh (1 1/2 – 2 cups diced) instead of canned.
  • For those who like it hot, add diced Serrano peppers or crushed red pepper flakes, to taste.

While keema curry is brilliant right after cooking, it actually improves over time. If you can plan ahead and make your curry in advance, the spices can mingle and meld, becoming richer and more harmonious when reheated. Stored in an airtight container in the fridge, leftover should keep for 5 – 7 days. Consider doubling the recipe to fully appreciate it, now and later.

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Dog Days of Summer

It’s hard to imagine a world without hot dogs. Such a critical touchstone in American culture transcends the boundaries of age, income, and upbringing. Everyone knows and can appreciate hot dogs on some level, even if they aren’t overt fans. Indeed, as variants on more highly seasoned sausages, the art of tube meat has been around for centuries, making a brief cameo appearance in Homer’s Odyssey, no less. The dog that we all know and love today, however, has only been around since the 1600’s, invented by a butcher in Germany.

Yes, this all-American staple, like so many others, is not American at all! It was imported with the immigrants making it and quickly became adopted as an affordable mealtime staple. Given their popularity, versatility, and the fact that they don’t actually resemble any animal known to mankind, I find it strange that vegan options are so lacking. There aren’t a ton of choices, especially in mainstream grocery stores. Quality has improved dramatically in recent years, but they’re still highly processed, and if you’re avoiding soy or gluten, you’re simply out of luck.

Homemade vegan hot dogs are a lot easier to make than you may think! My version only takes 10 minutes of steaming before they’re ready to grill. Unlike seitan, there’s no kneading, no blending, no fancy equipment at all. Humble chickpea flour is the high-protein, high-fiber base for our upgraded franks, making them gluten-free, too. A tiny pinch of xanthan gum lends just the right firm yet springy texture, not quite chewy, yet perfectly toothsome.

What defines a hot dog is not so much the base, but the seasonings. Some are more smoky, some are more sweet, but polls show that most people generally favor a balanced, beefy taste that’s slightly salty, and gently spiced, but not so much that you’d think of it as such. As with hamburgers, much of the overall experience comes from the condiments and toppings, which means that less is more when crafting the ideal meaty vehicle.

Maybe you can guess where I’m going with this by now. Sugimoto shiitake mushroom powder is the only ingredient capable of creating the perfect meatless hot dog dupe.

How is it possible that shiitake powder, made from 100% shiitake with no additives, fillers, or preservatives, could taste like anything other than mushrooms? It’s all about umami, which is simply savory, transcending the boundaries that would otherwise separate the plant and animal kingdom. So much of what turns off mushroom-haters is the texture, which becomes a non-factor when dried, ground, and integrated seamlessly into other foods. Used as seasoning in the dry hot dog mix, you only get a juicy, substantial bite, sealed with a kiss by the smoky sear of the grill.

Serving Suggestions

I like to keep mine classic, with minimal toppings piled into a soft white bun, but the beauty of a proper hot dog is that it can pair beautifully with an infinite variety of garnishes. Here are some ideas for servings your dogs in style:

  • Sauerkraut and mustard
  • Chili and cheese
  • Caramelized onions
  • Guacamole, pickled jalapeno, and salsa
  • Sliced tomatoes, relish, and shredded lettuce
  • BBQ sauce and vegan bacon

There are no bad choices here! Dress your hot dog like you would any sandwich; exactly as you please.

Make Ahead Advice

Hot dogs are classic party food. To feed a group, you don’t want to spend all day in the kitchen, which is why these are such a great option to prep ahead of time to simply heat and eat later.

    1. You can double, triple, or quadruple the recipe for a crowd, but you may need to steam them in batches. May sure you don’t crowd them in the steamer, so there’s room for the hot air to circulate around each one.
    2. Cool after steaming and store the hot dogs in zip top bags, squeezing out as much air as possible before sealing. You can store them in the fridge for 5 – 7 days like this, or toss them into the freezer to keep for at least 6 months.
    3. When you’re ready to serve, just toss them on the grill. If you’re preparing them from frozen, let them thaw at room temperature first, or defrost in the microwave.
    4. Leftovers can be stored in exactly the same way as the plain steamed dogs. You can reheat them in the microwave for 1 – 2 minutes, or toaster oven for 2 – 4 minutes, until hot all the way through.

Have You Tried Cooking with Hot Dogs?

Don’t forget, hot dogs can be so much more than a stand-alone entree. They’re an excellent source of protein with unlimited potential for use in other recipes. Some of my favorites are:

Other dishes that hot dogs would be great in include:

Hot dogs do seem like a natural pairing for a prime summer day, to be enjoyed in the sunshine with an icy beverage, perhaps after a quick dip in the pool. The good news, though, is that hot dogs never go out of season. Long after you bundle up the grill and winterize the yard, this recipe will still serve you well for the colder months ahead.

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