Story and photos by Lindsay Sterling
Indian food is one of my favorite cuisines, but it can be the most complicated to cook. In my experience, it tends to require 15 spices you don’t have, a lot of work, and extremely long cooking times. The chicken biryani I wrote about last year takes four hours to cook. That’s not saying it isn’t worth it. It is worth it, especially for a party. But wouldn’t it be great to know a relatively easy Indian dish that you could cook in less than an hour?
I asked my friend, Shweta Galway, from Gujarat State in India, what she likes to cook. Shweta said growing up in a Hindu family, her mom made vegetarian Indian food every night. “Every day in my household there would be rice, roti, vegetables, and dal.” Now a pharmacist and a mom of two young kids, Shweta’s favorite dish to cook on a weeknight is palak paneer and roti. Palak means spinach. And paneer is the type of cheese that’s mixed into it. Paneer is fresh and mild, like cottage cheese, ricotta, or farmer’s cheese, but drier and pressed into a block.
There are many longer, more complicated versions of palak paneer than hers, but Shweta has found her method to be fast, tasty, and achievable on a weeknight. One corner-cutting trick Shweta learned from her sister-in-law is to use frozen creamed spinach as an ingredient. Then all you have to do is sauté onions and garlic in olive oil in a large sauté pan, and add the creamed spinach, frozen chopped spinach, spices, and cheese.
And she doesn’t make a custom blend of a lot of different spices. She has faith in the contents of the garam masala in her cabinet. She used Patel Brother’s brand, which is a blend of coriander, red chili, cumin, clove, star anise, mace, fennel seeds, black pepper, bay leaves, cinnamon, dry mango, salt, and clove leaves. She adds two teaspoons of this to the spinach and lets that be that. Her dish, also known as saag paneer, was kid friendly. You could add more spice if you like more intensity.
Roti is a type of flatbread made out of Indian atta flour, which is a light yellow flour made out of the durum variety of wheat. According to Wikipedia, atta includes the endosperm and bran of the wheat grain, but not the germ. After mixing water into the flour and a little bit of olive oil, Shweta kneads the dough for five minutes until it’s smooth and doesn’t break when stretched. She rolls out little pieces into very thin discs with a tool that looks like a drummer’s drumstick. Shweta’s rotis were each as perfectly round as a full moon. Mine looked more like Maine islands on a map. Shweta recalled getting a lot of practice when she was a young girl. “I used to get made fun of when I was little. People would say, ‘Oh look, yours has a nose!’ And 'Yours look like India.’ It was fun.” She cooks the discs of dough on a hot, dry pan and then on an open flame until toasty spots appear.
To eat palak paneer, you tear off a piece of roti and use it to scoop up spinach and cheese. Then you eat the whole bite of spinach and bread together. Earthy, hot, creamy and delicious, Shweta’s spinach and flatbread cut out the fuss while keeping the homemade heart.