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rice, dhal and saag paneer

Outside of a restaurant, I’ve only had fresh homemade paneer once before–in the 90’s, on Boxing Day in the Devon countryside, along with an amazing leftover turkey curry. We were guests in a friend’s home and I was surprised to see the friend’s father laboring over his stove, doing something with cheese cloth. “What are you doing?” I asked him. “Making cheese,” he said. I’d also never had turkey curry before, or been in a house where the mother worked and the father was the stay-at-home parent who cooked impressive feasts daily. I was jealous of such a progressive family and lifestyle.

So this meal only LOOKS simple. Something to prepare on weekends or when you have the day off work and feel like spending a good portion of it in the kitchen. On the plus side, this is fun to cook, tastes delicious and feels so nourishing. We also ate poppadoms fried in coconut oil. * If replicating this exact meal, start with the dahl, then make the paneer, then the rice. Lastly fry the poppadoms and serve with a chutney or mint sauce.

How I make a basic dahl:
dal, dahl

Ingredients for dahl
Serves 3-4 people
1 cup of dried chana dahl (yellow split peas)
4 cups of water
6 garlic cloves, smashed and chopped
1 tsp of chopped fresh ginger
1 rounded tbs of ghee or vegetable oil
1 tsp of cumin powder
1/2 tsp coriander powder
1/4 tsp turmeric
1/4 tsp garam masala
pinch of asafoetida powder (optional)
1 tsp of salt (or more or less, to your taste)
For the tarka
1-2 tbs of vegetable oil
1 garlic clove, sliced thinly
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1 chopped, deseeded green chili (optional)
handful of chopped cilantro or parsley (or spring onion in a pinch)

1) Heat up the ghee or vegetable oil (ghee tastes better) in a medium-sized pot and gently cook the garlic and ginger on a low heat for a minute. Do not burn or even golden brown.
2) Add the spices and cook for another 30 seconds.
3) Add the water and chana dahl (red lentils make a nice dahl too, but they cook much quicker and don’t use as much water).
4) Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat to med-low and cook for an hour and a half to two hours, stirring occasionally. If the dahl sticks to the bottom of the pot, turn the heat down.
5) When the dahl is soft and completely cooked, add the salt in and mash it with a potato masher.
6) When you are about ready to eat, make the tarka by first heating up the vegetable oil in a small frying pan.
7) Add the garlic, cumin, chili (I did not use chili at all as I was eating with kids) and fresh herbs. Saute gently for a minute and then pour over the dahl. You can leave it as is or mix in.

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dal, dahl

Saag Paneer
First, the homemade paneer
You can buy it of course, but if you think making cheese is fun then give this a try.
I followed this great youtube video for homemade paneer, but I used 1 liter of milk, 1 tsp of salt and 5 tsp of fresh lemon juice. My paneer tasted nice but was a bit too soft to hold its shape well. It was my first try though. Next time, I’ll get it perfect.

homemade paneer

homemade paneer

homemade paneer

Ingredients for saag paneer
serves 3-4 people as a side dish
6oz fresh washed spinach or 1 bag of spinach, chopped
5oz fresh washed chard (if measuring with a cup, not a scale, just add a ton of greens), chopped
1 small block of paneer, cut into squares
1 small onion, cut into chunks
2 garlic cloves, smashed
1 deseeded green chili (jalapeno or serrano)
2 tsp fresh chopped ginger
3 tbs ghee or vegetable oil
1 tsp cumin powder
1 tsp garam masala powder
1 tsp coriander powder
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
1/4 tsp cayenne or chili powder
1 or 1 1/2 tsp salt
1 tomato, chopped
1/2 green pepper, chopped
1/4 cup plain yogurt or heavy cream (optional)
water, as needed

1) Make the paneer see above
2) Steam the greens, and puree half of them with a little of the cooking water if needed. Set aside.
3) Puree the onion, garlic, ginger and chili in a blender
4) Heat up 2 tbs of ghee in a deep frying pan and fry the pureed onion mixture on a medium heat until lightly browned.
5) Add the cumin, garam masala, coriander, turmeric, chili powder and salt and cook another minute on low heat. You now have your ‘curry paste’.
6) Add the tomato and green pepper and continue cooking for a couple of minutes to soften
7) Add the steamed greens and the pureed steamed greens to the pan (and a little water if needed) and cook through. Taste and adjust seasoning.
8) Heat up 1 tbs of ghee in a frying pan and fry the cubed pieces of paneer. Season with salt and pepper then gently incorporate into the saag. (If your paneer was soft like mine, then simply fold it into the saag and skip the yogurt/cream). Alternatively, you could use cooked, cubed potatoes instead of paneer and make a sort of saag aloo.
9) Mix in a little yogurt or heavy cream to make creamy.

Ingredients for pulao rice
serves 3-4 people
1 cup white basmati rice, soaked and rinsed
1 1/2 cup cold water
1/2 small onion, chopped finely
1 garlic clove, sliced finely
3 cloves
2 cardamom seeds
1 bay leaf
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
olive oil
small handful of unsalted nuts, such as hazelnuts or pistachios
1 tbs of ghee or butter
chopped cilantro or parsley for garnish
* For making perfect plain basmati rice, read this post

1) Heat up olive oil in a medium-sized pot and on a low heat, gently fry the onion, garlic, bay leaf, cloves and cardamom for a few minutes. Do not brown.
2) When the onion is very soft, add in the soaked and rinsed basmati rice and the water.
3) Bring to a boil, then put a lid on and turn the heat down low to simmer for about 15 minutes. The water should be just about gone by this point.
4) Keep the lid on and turn the heat off. Leave the rice for at least 15 minutes to finish steaming on its own.
5) Fluff the rice with a fork. Pick out the cloves, bay leaf and cardamom seeds.
6) Heat up the butter or ghee in a small frying pan.
7) Add the chopped nuts (I used pistachio nuts) and toast on a low heat, without browning the butter.
8) Pour over the rice and gently mix in with a fork. Serve with chopped parsley or cilantro.

This rice is gorgeous if you take the time to do it right. Each individual grain of rice is perfect. It’s nothing like sticky rice.

pulao, pilau rice

pulao, pilau rice

pulao, pilau rice

Keep the rice covered to stay warm while you fry the poppadoms and then plate everything up. Alternatively, this meal would be nice with a homemade flatbread too.

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