I love palak paneer, that Indian dish of spinach and cheese, but every time I go to Indian restaurants I tend to stay away from it. There’re a couple of reasons. The first is that the color of the dish scares me a bit. So often, the spinach has that uninviting rusty grayish green shade that says, “I’ve been sitting here forever waiting for you to order me.” Not good.
But don’t get me wrong on this. Usually, I find that most types of curries, including the ones I make at home, taste even better after they get some rest. Somehow the flavors intermingle more harmoniously. Not so with palak paneer. I don’t think that it improves with rest: it just discolors.
My second “issue” is the ghee. Restaurants are very fond of that ingredient, which I know is extremely popular in India, too. But not for me. I get indigestion when I overindulge. I’m just not used to so much butter. It is true that palak (spinach) and paneer (Indian cheese) are a bit bland by themselves. And ghee does have flavor. But come on. Indian cuisine is so rich with spices, isn’t there something else that might spare my stomach and waistline?
I think I finally nailed it. The recipe is healthy, nutritious and completely vegan. Here paneer was replaced with firm tofu, ghee was substituted with olive oil and to add creaminess and thickness, I added ground cashew nuts. We had it with carrot and cumin flavored basmati rice, minus the carrots. Steven thought it sort of resembled Italian pesto based on the ingredients and preparation method, hence my alternate name.
palak tofu or Indian pesto with tofu
1 large container of fresh spinach, leaves only (1lb)
3 jalapeño peppers, seeds partially removed, chopped
2 tbsp dried fenugreek leaves
1 container firm tofu, cubed
1 medium white onion, cubed
3 ripe Roma tomatoes
¾ tsp grated/ground fresh ginger
5 tbsp minced cilantro
¾ tbsp grated/ground garlic
½ tsp cumin seeds
3 tbsp olive oil
4 tbsp raw cashew nuts
Kosher salt to taste
Add 1 tablespoon olive oil to a pot on high. Add jalapeño peppers and sauté until soft. Add spinach and continue sautéing until wilted and volume reduced to about ¼. Set aside.
Bring a medium pot of water to a boil. Cut top of tomatoes off and make a cross incision at the other end. Plunge them in hot water and remove when skin curls. Let tomatoes cool down a bit, peel skins off and cut into cubes. Set aside.
Add some salt to hot water used to skin tomatoes, pour it over tofu and let it soak for about 10 minutes. Drain on paper towel. Add two tablespoons of olive oil to a skillet and gently toast/sauté the tofu cubes. Turn the heat off and keep it warm.
Place cashews in a skillet and toast them for a couple of minutes without burning them. Add to food processor and grind to a paste. Add sautéed spinach/jalapeño pepper mix, cilantro and fenugreek. Continue processing to a paste. Set aside.
Meanwhile heat remaining olive oil in pan, add cumin and toast until aromatic. Add ginger and garlic, stirring until raw smells are gone. Toss in onion and cook until translucent. Add spinach mix, salt to taste and cubed tomatoes, stir to combine and simmer for 10-15 minutes. Keep stirring to prevent sticking.
Either gently fold in tofu or plate it as we did here. Serve with rice.