Palak Paneer is a dish you will often encounter in Indian restaurants across the US. It is made from spinach and paneer cheese. Pam told me that Palak is the punjabi word for spinach…so Palak Paneer is just that – spinach with paneer. In our neighborhood, the version of Palak Paneer which seems to predominate is made from pureed spinach, and when we order it, I am always a little disappointed with the texture — too mushy. Whenever this happens to me, it typically sends me back to the kitchen to create my own version of the dish.
One of the reasons I became a culinary dietitian in the first place was my passion for homemade food that I developed when I first moved to rural central New Jersey back in the 80s. In those days, the most exotic restaurant food available in my neighborhood was pizza or the perennial sweet and sour pork from the only Chinese restaurant within a 20 mile radius of my apartment. I quickly learned to cook….
In this case…I called my good friend Pam.
Palak means spinach and paneer is a particular type of cheese. You might also run into a similar dish called Saag Paneer at some restaurants. Pam tells me that the difference between Palak Paneer and Saag Paneer is that the word saag is a kind of generic term for greens, and thus Saag Paneer could be made from spinach, watercress, mustard greens, brussels sprouts, gai lan (Chinese broccoli), kale, or pretty much any other green that is fresh at the market.
Paneer cheese is made by curdling milk with an acid such as lemon juice or vinegar, and is commonly used in Indian and Pakistani cuisine. It is readily available in South Asian grocery stores. If you can’t find paneer in your neighborhood, small cubes of mozzarella could also work for this dish, although the flavor and texture will definitely be different, and you’d need to add it at the very end and stir very gently, lest it melt into a gooey mess. Some people use feta cheese as an alternative to paneer, but this could make the dish a little too salty. If using feta you should probably omit the salt from the ingredients.
In this recipe we use chopped spinach so that the dish retains more body and has a pleasing texture that adds to the dish. The recipe is built using a base of Pam & Barbara’s Green Masala, which can be made ahead and comes in handy for a variety of Indian dishes. We also used frozen chopped spinach for convenience. Frozen vegetables are convenient and totally “count” as part of your daily vegetable intake.
Palak Paneer (serves 6)
by Pam Mehta and Barbara Spalding, MA, MS, RDN
- 1 Tbsp. canola oil
- ½ tsp. black mustard seeds
- ½ tsp. cumin seeds
- 1 cup finely chopped onion
- 2 Tbsp. Pam and Barbara’s Green Masala
- 1 tsp. cumin powder
- 1 tsp. turmeric
- ½ tsp. garam masala
- ½ tsp. salt
- 2 Tbsp. tomato paste
- 1 lb. bag of chopped frozen spinach, rinsed and squeezed dry in a colander
- 1 ½ cup paneer cubes (1/2” or smaller)
- 1 tsp. lemon juice, if desired
1. Place canola oil in large pan on top of stove and heat on medium high heat.
2. Add mustard seeds, cover and continue to heat.
3. When the mustard seeds “pop”, add cumin seeds and cook for 1 minute.
4. Add onion, stir gently and cook for 3-5 minutes until onion is translucent.
5. Stir in the green masala, cumin powder, turmeric, garam masala and salt.
6. Add tomato paste and 2-3 Tbsp. water to keep mixture from sticking.
7. Spread spinach over the masala mixture in the pan and stir gently.
8. Add approximately 1 cup of water to create a saucy texture.
9. Gently stir in the paneer cubes.
Adjust seasoning. Top with lemon juice if desired.
10. Serve with a small salad and brown rice or freshly made roti. ( I was lucky – the day we made this dish, Pam made us some homemade roti to enjoy. Will post that recipe sometime in the New Year. In the meantime, if you are not inclined to make fresh rotis yourself, you can also always purchase them at the South Asian market.)
Nutrition information per serving: 260 calories; 17 g fat; 10 g saturated fat; 55 mg cholesterol; 320 mg sodium; 11 g carbohydrate; 3 g dietary fiber; 16 g protein (values are approximate).
Pam Mehta and Barbara Spalding, MA, MS, RDN