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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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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Skirting the Issue

Fashion is not my forte, but I do know a gorgeous skirt when I see one. My favorite sort is lacy, delicate, so sheer that it’s borderline risqué. Though short, it covers everything important and never rides up.

Of course, this skirt is best worn by plump vegetable dumplings. All it takes is a simple slurry to elevate average frozen pot stickers into an unforgettable appetizer or entree. Presented with the skirt-side up in restaurants, the paper-thin, impeccably crisp crust sets the stage for a symphony of textures and tastes. A few sharp jabs with any nearby eating utensil will shatter the brittle webbing, separating the dumplings below.

What is a dumpling skirt made of?

Some people insist that only cornstarch will work; others concede that any starch is equivalent. Many use simple all-purpose flour, while yet another contingent blend flour and starch to get the best of both worlds. Truth be told, there’s no wrong answer here. Everything goes, and everything produces equally delicious yet different results. Some create a more open lattice, some form a consistent sheet, some don’t get quite as crunchy, and some don’t brown. Experiment or just use what’s on hand until you find the crispy skirt with all the qualities you’re looking for.

Personally, I like to keep it simple with just one binder, but neither starch nor wheat get my vote. I prefer plain white rice flour for a crispy, fool-proof skirt every time. All you need is water for the liquid, though a touch of vinegar for flavor is a nice addition.

Want to make your own dumplings?

I love dressing up store-bought dumplings using this technique for a special yet easy weekday dinner. If you want to go all out and start from scratch, I have plenty of dumpling recipes to suggest:

Bear in mind that fresh, homemade dumplings won’t need as long to cook as frozen, so adjust the timing as needed.

Compared to most skirts on the market these days, this has a distinct advantage: One size fits all.

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Love Triangles

Samosa will always have a place close to my heart. As a baby vegan, before I knew how to cook anything more complicated than plain pasta, frozen foods were my saving grace. One of my favorites was a frozen samosa wrap, an American-Indian mashup of a beloved potato pastry. Gently spiced, golden mashed potatoes gleamed from within a whole wheat tortilla, dotted with tender green peas for an ideal toothsome bite. They could be eaten toasted, microwaved, or simply thawed, which suited my haphazard meal planning perfectly. Though not the most authentic introduction, it opened my eyes to the rich world of flavors unlocked by Indian cuisine.

From that time on, samosas were always my safe food when eating out. When friends or family wanted their tikka masala or tandori, I knew I could count on the humble spud to fill buttery fried pastries, and in turn, my stomach. Little did I know that the original samosas, introduced to the Indian subcontinent around the 13th century by traders from Central Asia, had nothing to do with the starchy staple. In fact, the original samosa was stuffed primarily with sauteed onions, ground meat, peas, spices, and herbs. Sometimes pistachios, almonds, or chickpeas might enter the picture as a nod to their middle eastern inspiration, but there was not a single potato to be found.

Wondering what I might have been missing all those years, I was curious to get a taste of this protein-packed variant. It would be easy enough to take a traditional recipe and swap in a hyper-realistic vegan beef substitute, but I prefer to start from scratch. Naturally, I’m building the flavor foundation with Sugimoto shiitake, minced finely to approximate the rich, savory flavor and chewy texture of minced meat. Crumbled tempeh carries that flavor with an equally umami, fermented base.

Building those layers of nuanced, harmonious, and craveable flavors starts with tempering spices according to Indian tradition, but certainly doesn’t end there. Japanese ingredients like soy sauce and shiitake create a truly irresistible taste sensation. Folded into flaky pastry triangles, there’s no better snack, starter, or entree around.

How can you make quick and easy samosa?

If you’re daunted by pastry dough, don’t worry. There are plenty of quick-fix solutions for that outer wrapping, such as:

  • Phyllo dough
  • Puff pastry
  • Pie dough
  • Spring roll wrappers
  • Burrito-sized flour tortillas

Alternately, you don’t need to create a crispy outer layer to contain all that meaty goodness in the first place. Other uses for the filling sans pastry are:

  • Bun samosa (sandwiched between fluffy hamburger or slider buns)
  • Pizza topping
  • Chip dip
  • Bolognese sauce

Want to make a healthier samosa?

Though they’re traditionally deep-fried, I like to pan-fry or shallow fry mine. You can easily cut down on the added oil and fat even further.

  • Air fry at 370 degrees for 15 minutes, flipping after 10 minutes, until crispy and browned on both sides.
  • Bake in a conventional oven preheated to 400 degrees for 20 – 30 minutes, flipping halfway through, until golden brown.

How can you serve samosa?

Like any properly constructed hand pie, samosa are designed to be eaten out of hand. Though brilliantly flavorful as is, it never hurts to add a simple dipping sauce, especially as a cooling temperature contrast to the hot pastry. My favorite options include:

If you’d like to create a well-rounded plated meal with samosa as the centerpiece, that’s a snap, too! Just add one or more sides:

  • Leafy green salad
  • Chopped cucumbers and tomatoes
  • Rasam (spicy tomato soup)
  • Lentil dal
  • Basmati rice

While the younger me might be horrified at the distinct lack of potato content, the older and wiser me knows better. Amplified by the natural umami of Sugimoto shiitake mushrooms, this is my new go-to comfort food. Being homemade gives it the edge over store-bought frozen options, no doubt, but the concept itself transcends such a simplistic view. Once you taste bite through that flaky, crisp pastry and tear into that decadently moist, meaty beefless filling, sparkling with a vibrant palate of bright spices, you’ll understand why it’s the staple food that changed Indian cuisine as we know it today.

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