Thoughts of my Mother: Wanderlust and Palak Paneer

The recipe in this post will be rather long. It’s not difficult, there are just several steps. If you want to try something new, try this.

Some people say my addiction to food is quite peculiar. My ability to remember exactly what I ate, and generally where I ate it, from years prior, I must say, is kind of weird. But food has always had a lasting impact on me. I think it’s because so much of a culture is reflected in it’s food. Indian, Moroccan, and Latin food with all of their spices conveys the spiciness and colorfulness of those cultures and regions, the eclectic mix of food you will find in America is the embodiment of the “melting pot,” and the rich French food complements the culture where food can be the focal point of a person’s day.

My baking style is me, but my cooking style is my mom: minimize the amount of dishes you need to clean, taste things and add a little more of this or that to make it just right, how to make meals for the week so you can eat well, but fast, how to make Indian food, Chinese food, American food, Mexican food, etc. My house was always filled with various spices, that to me were totally normal, but to most of my friends were completely foreign.

Some of the stories I remember most clearly from my childhood was when my mom and my Otti told me about food and food-experiences. They had the amazing opportunity, that a lot of people don’t, to try new foods for the first time when they came to the United States. I would love to be able to remember the feeling I had when I first tried chocolate, or ate my first slice of pizza, or even what I thought of lettuce when I first chewed it. My mom can remember those things though: the first time she tried American chocolate (it’s different!), saw and ate lettuce, ate at a Taco Bell…when she moved here, a totally different world of flavors opened up to her!

The story she told me, that will always stick with me, is when she cooked lettuce. She had moved to America recently, and was grocery shopping, and looking for cabbage to cook up, and saw lettuce. She wasn’t really sure what it was (lettuce isn’t all that common in India at the time), brought it home, and cooked it up. I remember her telling me about how confused she was…when she cut it, there was so much of it, but it cooked down to such a small, itty bitty amount. So of course she gave that to my father. Now he had been in the US longer, and knew it was lettuce. But he ate it anyways, without a word, because that’s the kind of guy my dad is.

He took her to the store, and explain the different between lettuce and cabbage next time.

I am jealous that my parents had that experience. They were able to try new things, and remember them clearly. I want that, and I think that’s why I have such a strong desire to travel, and see new things, and taste new things. It’s hits your brain in a lasting way, and I want that experience my parents had, and could tell me about.

Today I felt inspired to cook because for the first time ever, I tried rhubarb. It’s amazing…but that’s a recipe for another time.

Anyways, I saw this recipe for Saag Paneer someone posted, and decided to make it the way I know how to, because it reminded me of being home. Saag Paneer and Palak Paneer are the same thing, literally translated, spinach cheese. It’s basically creamed spinach and cheese cubes. It’s fragrant, full of spices but not spicy, and filling. Quite easy to make too, and can last the week in a closed container in the fridge. If you’ve never had it, try it. You can find the spices at your local Whole Foods or if you live in Texas, Central Market.

Paneer (cheese)

You can either buy this frozen from outside or make your own, doesn’t take that long.

0.5 gallon or 8 cups of whole milk
0.25 cup of lemon juice
0.5 cup warm water

Other stuff you’ll need: cheese cloth or muslin cloth, fine mesh strainer, large pyrex bowl (optional)

In a heavy bottomed pot, bring the 8 cups of water to gentle boil, stirring occasionally to make sure the milk at the bottom doesn’t burn. When it’s boiling, add in lemon juice and warm water gradually, stirring all the while. You’ll see the curds start to separate from the whey (liquid) right away. Turn off the heat, and continue stirring occasionally for about another minute or so.

Place the cheese cloth over the fine mesh strainer, and set that over the bowl. Slowly pour the curds and whey onto the cheese cloth, and you’ll see the whey go through and catch in the bowl, and the cheese remain.

Once you pour it all through, lift the cheese cloth off the strainer, and twist it so the cheese in a ball, covered in cheese cloth (be careful, it’ll be quite hot). Then just rinse the ball under cold water, to wash off any remaining lemon taste, and squeeze out any excess water. Place the whole thing under a heavy pot on a plate, and allow it to sit for about an hour to squeeze out the water.

When it’s done, pull it out, cut it into cubes, and pan-fry the cubes in about 1 tablespoon of butter to brown them on the outside.

Palak (spinach)

1.5 lbs of fresh spinach, chopped (baby spinach is the easiest)
1 large red onion chopped finely
4 cloves of garlic (more or less depending on how much you like)
1 tbsp. butter
1 tbsp. ginger grated
0.75 cup plain yogurt or buttermilk
dash of cream
splash of lemon juice

2 cardamon pods
3 cloves
1 tbsp. cumin powder
3 tsp. tumeric (the yellow powder)
1 tsp. black mustard seeds
0.5 tsp. red chili powder or red chili flakes
1 tsp. salt
a dash of cinnamon
**Note, all these spices can be altered for your liking, so I added more spice, more cumin, and more salt, because that’s how I like it. I also used a small piece of cinnamon bark instead of actual cinnamon**

In a large soup pan, heat the butter on medium-heat, and then toss in the onions and saute them for about 5 minutes until they’re soft. Then add in the garlic, and spices. Saute until fragrant, about a minute more.

Then add in spinach, and mix in until it’s wilted down. Add in the yogurt and dash of cream. Mix well, allow it to cook for about 3-4 minutes. If it’s too dry, add in more cream or yogurt. Then add in the splash of lemon juice and mix. Try it, if it needs more salt, add it, or if it needs more spice, go for it. Go by taste. When it’s done, toss in the pan-fried paneer (the cheese), and serve with roti, naan, or over rice.

Optional additions: you can add in a tbsp. of tomato paste to add extra flavor, or fresh tomatoes. You can also top with cilantro, and lime slices.

Odd picture, but quite good!

One thought on “Thoughts of my Mother: Wanderlust and Palak Paneer

  1. Rhubarb is amazing.

    Please do tell what you did with it!

    I had a little pet plant when I lived at the Domes in Davis. It was in the herb garden and no one seemed to be harvesting it- so I befriended it, and weeded it, and got so many yummy rhubarb crisps! I still check on it whenever I go to the Domes, and it is still there 🙂


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