Curried Spinach with Fresh Cheese (Saag Paneer)

This chile pepper gets its name from its origin. In Spanish, serrano is an adjective meaning “from the mountains” which is where it originated-in the mountains of Hildalgo, Mexico. The serrano is normally about twice as hot as Jalapeno (about 10,000 to 15,000 Scoville units). It is the second most popular chile pepper in Mexico. This chile is used mostly for salsas but can also be used in soups, sauces, chili or stews. Try these as a hotter substitute for Jalapeno.

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Ingredients:

8 cups whole milk
1/4 cup plus 1 tsp. lemon juice
5 tsp. salt
4 pounds spinach, well rinsed and thick stems removed
8 cloves garlic
2 onions, roughly chopped
2 serrano chiles, seeded
1 piece ginger (3″) peeled and roughly chopped
2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
seeds from 7 cardamom pods
3 whole cloves
2 bay leaves
1 cinnamon stick
2 Tbsp. ground coriander
1 Tbsp. ground cumin
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 canned tomato, chopped
1/4 cup whole-milk yogurt
2 tsp. garam masala

Instructions:

1. Line a colander with 2 layers of cheesecloth and set in the sink. Bring the milk to a boil in a large pot over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally to prevent scorching. Let it boil for 30 seconds (remove it from heat if it starts to boil over) and stir in 1/4 cup of lemon juice. The milk will curdle, separating into cheese curds and a clear yellow whey. Pour into a cheesecloth-lined colander.

2. Rinse the curds with cold water. Pull up the edges of the cheesecloth and gently squeeze out as much water as possible, and form curds into a 6″ disk. Put the cheesecloth-wrapped disk on a large plate and top with a large cutting board, and weigh down with a heavy pot. Put the curds in the refrigerator and let press for at least 3 hours or overnight.

3. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Fill a large bowl with ice water and set aside. To the boiling water, add 3 tsp. salt and the spinach. Cook for 1 minute, then drain and transfer the spinach to the ice water. Swirl the water around to cool the spinach and drain again. Use your hands to squeeze the water from the spinach. Set aside.

4. In a blender, whirl the garlic, onions, chiles, ginger and a 1/4 cup of water to make a paste. Set aside.

5. In a medium pot over medium-high heat, add the oil, cardamom, cloves, bay leaves and cinnamon. Cook until the spices darken, about 2 minutes, and add the reserved onion paste. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture thickens and darkens, about 15 minutes. If the mixture starts to stick, add 1 Tbsp. of water at a time, stirring, to help loosen it.

6. Stir in the coriander, cumin and turmeric. Cook until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add the tomato and yogurt. Cook until the mixture thickens slightly, about 3 minutes. Stir in the spinach and remaining salt. Turn the heat down to low and cover. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the flavors are blended, about 30 minutes.

7. Cut the paneer into 1/2″ cubes and gently stir into the spinach mixture. Cook until the paneer is heated through, about 2 minutes. Add the garam masala and the remaining lemon juice. Adjust the salt and lemon juice to taste. Serve hot with flatbread or rice.

Yields 6 servings.

Recipe from Sunset Magazine, January, 2007.