Okay, so the pun is admittedly a bit of a stretch (and I’m sure you Indian food fans out there are groaning and rolling your eyes at this chef/writer) but everyone was stretching across the dinner table to snag some more of this vegan spin on the classic Indian dish.
Palak paneer is a staple on every Indian restaurant menu, consisting primarily of spinach, spices, and paneer. Paneer is a type of Indian cheese made from curds and whey and isn’t exactly easy to come by on a college campus, let alone the run-off of a colonial town. A favorite cookbook of mine, The Accidental Vegan by Devra Gartenstein, happened to have a sensible, and animal-product-free, substitute. Can you guess it? You probably can – tofu.
Tofu is a magical little protein, and you can expect it to get a featurette of its own on this blog in the not-too-distant future. As much as I would like to go into an essay on the magic and mystery of soybean curd, that is a tale for another time. So for now, take my word that this recipe is certainly not something anyone should be afraid of – omnivores and herbivores alike.
Now on to the good part: what do I need and how do I make it? Keeping with my true college-student-who-can’t-afford-nice-things-nor-has-the-time-for-multiple-course-meals style, all of the ingredients in this dish are affordable and easy to come by and the meal itself is basically prepared using just one sturdy skillet.
You will need:
1 cup brown basmati rice (or any rice, really)
2 cups water or vegetable stock
(You could easily substitute 5-minute or instant rice if you’re in a hurry or just lazy)
1 ½ tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon grated ginger (ginger powder will suffice in a pinch)
2 ½ tablespoons curry powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 10-ounce package frozen spinach (try to let it thaw for a while first)
8 ounces firm or extra-firm tofu, cut into bite-size cubes
cayenne pepper to taste
1. Bring a saucepan with the 2 cups of water to a boil; add the rice. Turn the heat down to low and simmer, covered for 40-45 minutes. Set a timer so you can keep track of it. The rice will be done when it is fluffy and all the water has been absorbed. If using instant rice, prepare as directed when you add the tofu and spinach later – that way everything will be done at the same time.
2. While the rice cooks you can take the opportunity to cut your onion and tomato. With everything chopped and ready (and about 15-20 minutes left on the rice) place a skillet on medium-low heat and add the oil – let it heat up a couple minutes until shimmery.
3. Add the onion, ginger, curry powder and salt and sauté until the onion is tender, about five minutes. The turmeric in the curry powder will give the onion a yellowish color.
4. Add the spinach and cook until incorporated (and fully heated if your spinach was still frozen).
5. Add the tofu and tomato and gently toss, incorporating all the ingredients, and heat for another 5 minutes or until hot. Stir often, and be gentle so as not to break up all the tofu cubes.
6. If you’ve timed it perfectly, the timer for the rice should be going off right as everything is hot and ready to serve, although perfect timing comes with practice. Serve the palak tofu over the rice, and you should have yourself 3-4 hearty servings.
This is a spectacularly colorful and aromatic dish and will easily satisfy a small dinner group, and impress them too. Share it with your fellow vegetarians, or surprise yourself (or the meat-ophiles in your life!) with an unexpectedly hearty and meat-free dish.