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.

Continue reading “Perfect Palak Paneer”

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.

Continue reading “The Rice of Royalty”

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.

Continue reading “Koftaesque”

Pop On Over for Papadum

Culinary magic is the only way to explain how papadum are made. Ethereally thin and immaculately crisp, each fragment shatters upon impact like a flavor grenade straight to the tongue. Even after subsequent bites, palate fatigue never sets in because each piece is a little bit different, sparkling with both whole and ground spices embedded into the peaks and valleys formed by air bubbles while cooking. Calling them crackers or chips doesn’t do this classic Indian snack proper justice.

While plain versions do exist, the vast majority apply seasoning with a liberal hand. Why stop at just cumin and chili powder when you could further enhance your papad with umami? This is a job for Sugimoto shiitake powder, of course! It’s the ideal addition because it won’t clash or cover up other spices, but serves to further enhance their inherent flavors. That’s another kind of magic that seems fitting for such a captivating crisp.

What make papadum so special?

The basic ingredients that go into making papadum are spare, common, affordable pantry staples. Chickpea flour is the only non-negotiable in this recipe, although lentils, rice, and potato are traditional variants, so there’s certainly room for more experimentation. This legume base creates a delicate dough that’s not only high in protein, but also gluten-free.

It’s the technique that creates the alchemic transformation. After initially rehydrating the flour, the individual disks are dehydrated. At this stage, uncooked papads have such a low moisture content that they can keep for months in a cool, dry place. A quick and intense blast of heat brings them to life. This is the same principle at play for shrimp chips and chicharrones: the remaining water expands, stretching the dough and creating the fine matrix of bubbles just below the surface.

Tips for making perfect papadum:

  1. Use a stand mixer to bring the dough together. It’s extremely thick and dry which makes it difficult to effectively mix by hand. Resist the temptation to add more water, which will quickly transform the malleable dough into a sticky paste.
  2. Lightly oiled hands are much more effective at flattening the individual papad than a rolling pin. Just stretch somewhat like a pizza dough first before placing each one on a piece of parchment paper. Use your fingertips to gently press it out as thinly as possible. A rolling pin is much more likely to stick, tear, and generally make a mess. For the gadget lover: If you have a tortilla press or a pasta roller, those are other great alternatives for a more consistent, smooth surface.
  3. Thickness, or more accurately thinness, is critical for success. Aim for about 1/16 of an inch thick; thinner than gingerbread cookies, thinner than western crackers, thinner than you think is really possible.
  4. Dehydrate slowly and thoroughly. Traditionally, papad are simply left out in full sun for 2 – 3 days, but it’s important to control the drying rate accurately for long term storage. Excess moisture invites bacteria growth that will cause spoilage.

What’s the best way to cook papadum?

You have three options for that final step: Microwaving, air frying, and deep frying.

  • Microwaving is the quickest, easiest, cleanest, and arguably healthiest. In a matter of seconds, papadum spring to life with no oil at all. It’s safe for kids (or particularly accident-prone adults) to use by themselves for an instantly gratifying snack. The downside is that not all microwaves are created equal, so it may take some trial and error to find the sweet spot for timing, power levels, and placement.
  • Air frying is my personal favorite approach, reaping the textural benefits of dry, intense heat for quick cooking, with just a touch of added oil for a subtle extra depth of flavor. This sensation, the richness of fat, is known as kokumi in Japanese, which works in concert with the umami of the shiitake powder to create a more rounded, harmonious, and simply delicious experience.
  • Deep frying or pan frying is most traditional, harnessing the firepower of hot oil to make the crispiest, crunchiest, and quite frankly the most addictive food around. It’s fantastic on special occasions, but I hate the mess and peril that comes hand-in-hand with setting a bubbling vat of edible napalm on the stove.

Once you start making papadum from scratch, it’s hard to go back to store-bought. Detonating with a calculated barrage of spices, each wafer-thin bombshell blows the competition out of the water.

Continue reading “Pop On Over for Papadum”

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.

Continue reading “Keema Curry for Keeps”

Water You Waiting For?

Dramatically heaving the bag out of the kitchen with exaggerated effort, punctuating every few steps with a few groans for good measure, my dad could have won awards for that performance. “What did you put in here! Are you throwing away a pile of bricks?”

Heavy with the remains of a recently eviscerated watermelon, our garbage bin was easily overweight. Summertime trash days came with a built-in upper body workout. Though I knew he was only putting on a show, that sentiment remained along with an unintended, yet indelible sense of guilt. There was no municipal composting in my hometown nor enough knowledge on my part to make my own mulch at the tender age of 16. All I knew was that I loved watermelon, and that passion came with a lot of excess baggage in the form of rinds.

I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was throwing away perfectly good food, despite conventional wisdom that says otherwise. Turns out, I’m not the first to have that thought. Thrifty homemakers have been turning those scraps into pickles for centuries, particularly in the south, with a penchant for a syrupy sweet brine. One or two batches of these preserves was enough for me, but the refuse continued to amass.

Further experimentation led to greater rewards. Once cleaned of the hard outer skin and diced, the watermelon rind itself becomes almost translucent while cooking, taking on a neutral flavor much like that of simmered zucchini or any other summer squash. Perfect for bulking up a stew when the budget is lean or adding a bit more fiber that picky eaters can easily enjoy, my secret ingredient for everything savory from June to September is formerly fodder for the wastebasket.

Even now, with effortless curbside compost pickup, this “rubbish” is too good to toss. Further trials have turned out delicious results, including a delightfully crisp, crunchy watermelon rind slaw and deeply satisfying, piping-hot breaded watermelon rind fries. An easy entry into the world of watermelon rind cookery is curry, for anyone who remains skeptical. The bold spices paint any vegetable in a rich palate of warm flavors, ideal for mixing and matching any produce you might have left into the bin. Curry is my go-to answer for using up odds and ends that otherwise don’t go together, but with a bit more deliberate planning, you can craft a truly superlative stew.

Serve over rice or with chewy flatbread like naan or roti to complete the meal. You could also lean more heavily on the southern roots of these produce picks and dip a wedge of soft, sweet cornbread into the brew. No matter what, just don’t toss those rinds. They still have a lot of culinary potential left to savor.

Continue reading “Water You Waiting For?”