Braised Greens with Paneer is a recipe born of necessity. If I’m up early on a weekend morning I’ll take a trip out to the specialty butcher for inspiration for Sunday dinner, and then get the rest of the meal at the farm stand up the road. On this particular weekend I had picked up some gorgeous lamb shanks. I was planning to riff on a vindaloo and needed a vegetable on the side. When I got to the farm stand I was torn between a gorgeous crop of purple Brussels sprouts and a bag of colorful mixed greens simply labeled “for braising”. And the wheels of my brain started turning and came up with a half-formed idea that was a cross between Southern collard greens and an Indian saag paneer. So I grabbed two bags of the greens and then went about trying to figure out what’s next.
For the uninitiated, saag paneer is an Indian dish that combines greens (saag) and cheese (paneer). It’s a fixture of Indian buffets here in the Pacific Northwest. I suspect that there are myriad regional variations, but the version that makes it onto American tables is usually prepared with finely pureed spinach and heartstopping amounts of cream and butter. It is utterly and unbelievably delicious and a great way to get your daily veggies, but this wasn’t what I had in mind for a Sunday meal. The vindaloo would be plenty rich on its own, and I figured that the dark, bitter greens would be a perfect complement to the savory, vinegary sauce. I wanted to taste my greens, not smother them in cream.
I ended up choosing coconut milk over cream, just enough to coat the greens but not enough to bury them. The paneer is not particularly salty and adds more texture than flavor. I kept the spices simple – cumin, coriander, ginger, and garlic – and let the greens speak for themselves. And I got exactly what I was after: the greens soaked up the spicy, vinegary sauce and were just creamy enough to cut the heat a little. I think there’s potential here for a main course, with brighter spices, a little bit of heat, and maybe a smidge more salt, but that’s an adventure for another day.
- 4 tbsp ghee (or neutral oil, divided)
- 2 tsp ground cumin
- 1 - 2 dried red chili peppers (crumbled)
- 1 tsp ground coriander
- 1 tsp garlic (finely chopped)
- 1 tsp fresh ginger (grated or finely chopped)
- 6 - 8 cup mixed braising greens (see note)
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 cup thin coconut milk
- 8 oz paneer (see note for substitutes)
- Rinse braising greens and coarsely chop. Add spices to a small pinch bowl, and garlic and ginger to another.
- Melt 2 tbsp ghee in a thick-bottomed Dutch oven over medium heat. Add spices and stir two or three times. Add garlic and ginger and stir two or three times, then add greens and stir-fry for a minute or two.
- Add salt and coconut milk. Stir to combine, bring to a boil, then cover and simmer for 10-15 minutes.
- Heat remaining ghee in a skillet over medium heat. Cut paneer into cubes and add to the skillet. Fry about one minute on top and bottom until both sides are nicely browned.
- Stir browned paneer into greens, and simmer another 10 minutes or so until greens are soft but not soggy.
The braising greens at my local farm market were a mix of kales, chards, mustard, and collard greens. Avoid spinach or other more delicate salad greens.
Paneer cheese is available at Indian markets, and sometimes at upscale grocery stores. It is a firm, low-moisture cheese with a mild flavor. If you can’t get paneer locally Mexican queso fresco or Greek halloumi will make an acceptable substitute. If you want to try making your own there are plenty of recipes online, though I can’t vouch for any of them. But for the love of all that is holy do not believe anyone on the internet who tells you that tofu is an acceptable substitute. This is an affront to all that is good in the world.