Palak paneer belongs in a category with Spencer Tracy and football in the mud—not much to look at, but hard to dislike. Like Texas chili, another gloppy classic of world comfort food, its murk hides intricate cross-currents of flavor and heat.
Arguably the Triangle's best Indian restaurant for all its anonymity in a recessed corner of the East 54 complex, Chapel Hill's Raaga serves a version with plenty of personality. Cubes of springy ricotta-like cheese (paneer) lie half-submerged in a bed of spinach puree (palak), with tomato, onion, garlic, ginger, chili, cumin and coriander slyly urging their presence.
While lesser examples are the green-brown of a British soccer pitch in November, Raaga's version is lucent green. The trick to retaining the spinach's color is to flash chill it between cooking stages. I confess to only partial success: my version outdid the British soccer pitch, but it will not be appearing on menus in the Emerald City. I forgivingly tell myself that Raaga's freezer must be colder than mine.
"The first thing is that the spinach should be green—a very bright green," pronounces chef Uzzal Botlero, who's helmed Raaga since it opened in 2010. "Sometimes it loses the color but keeps the taste—NO! You start with green vegetables and the cooked vegetables turn out black—NO! The taste and color must go together."
Paneer entails its own hazards. As I learned by trial and comedy of error, paneer glues itself to just about everything during the deep-frying process. Pieces clung to each other, to the bottom of my Le Creuset Dutch oven, to the mighty tennis racket of a Chinese slotted-spoon I favor. I recommend a non-stick pot and a silicone scoop.
"Lachha paratha"—or flaky paratha—turns out to be as easy to prepare as it is lovely to behold. An unleavened whole-wheat dough is brushed with butter and repeatedly folded like puff pastry. It's finally rolled flat and slapped onto a griddle. Once it has puffed and charred, it's roughly crumpled, its various layers springing into flowery petalled concentricity.
If roses were meant to ferry palak paneer to the mouth, they would look like this.
Going for the greenFor the Paneer (cheese)
1/2 gallon whole milk
3 Tbsp. white vinegar
Heat the milk, stirring gently. Just before it boils (at about 208 degrees), stir in the vinegar and kill the heat. Let the milk rest for 7 minutes without stirring, allowing the curds to coagulate. Strain in a cheesecloth-fitted colander. Tightly wrap the curds and rinse with cold water, squeezing out all moisture. Unwrap the curds and place in a mound between two cutting boards. Press with a 15-lb. object (say a large pot of water) for 2 hours. Cut into ¾-inch cubes, disposing of any ragged edges. Refrigerate until ready to use.
For the Palak (spinach)
18 oz. frozen raw spinach
(2 9-oz. packages), thawed
1 clove garlic, finely minced
1/2 tsp. Jaipuri chili powder
1/4 tsp. cumin seeds
Process the spinach until nearly pureed (aim for a snowy consistency). Pan-fry the spinach in a tablespoon of oil. Add the garlic, chili powder and cumin seeds. Cook at medium temp., about 7 min. Immediately transfer the spinach to a pre-chilled metal bowl and place in the freezer. Chill for 30 minutes or until icy cold (but not frozen).
For the Palak Paneer
Serves 4 as part of a larger meal
1 recipe paneer
Canola oil (for deep frying)
1 small onion or half a medium onion (200 grams)
1 small tomato (200 grams)
1 clove garlic, finely minced
1 tsp. minced ginger
1/4 tsp. coriander powder
1/4 tsp. cumin powder
1/4 tsp. Jaipuri chili powder (or to taste)
1/4 tsp. turmeric
1 recipe palak (spinach)
5 Tbsp. heavy cream (or to taste)
3/4 tsp. kosher salt (or to taste)
1/8 tsp. garam masala
1/2 Tbsp. butter
Deep-fry the paneer cubes at 350 degrees until slightly crisped, about 1 minute (to prevent disintegration when added to the spinach). Finely mince the tomato and onion. Pan-fry the onion in butter or oil until browned. Add the garlic, ginger, coriander, cumin, chili powder, turmeric, tomato and 1 cup water. Cook at medium temp. until the vegetables have softened and the water has evaporated, about 15 minutes. Puree half the onion-tomato mixture and combine the smooth and chunky portions. Return to the heat. Stir in the spinach and cream. Cook at medium temp. for 4 minutes. Add the paneer, salt and garam masala. Finish with 1/2 Tbsp. butter.
"Flaky" Paratha (makes 4)
1 lb. atta, i.e., Indian whole-wheat flour
(about 3 cups, loosely packed)
1 cup room-temperature water
9 Tbsp. clarified or melted butter
1 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
2 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
Knead the atta, water, salt and 1 Tbsp. melted butter to form a pliant, medium-stiff dough (neither dry nor tacky). Rest the dough for 30 min. covered with a barely moist paper towel. Divide into four pieces. Roll the first piece into a 12-inch round. Brush the surface with butter and sprinkle with 1/2 tsp. all-purpose flour. Fold in half, forming a semi-circle. Again brush the surface with butter and sprinkle with 1/2 tsp. flour. Fold in half, forming a rectangle. Yet again brush the surface and sprinkle. Fold in half, forming a cigar shape. Stretch the dough to 18 inches. Roll the dough into a coil and flatten (concentric circles facing up, like a cinnamon bun). Roll into a 9-inch round. Place on a hot, dry cast-iron griddle. Sear each side and then brush each side with melted butter. Cook until attractively charred and slightly puffed. Remove and aggressively crumple, releasing the dough layers. Repeat with the remaining dough pieces. Serve hot.