Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Spinach sauce (Saag)--vegan or chicken or veg, oh my!

Chicken saag, try to stop yourself from eating it right out of the pan while
standing in the kitchen! (Oh, go on ahead, its THAT good...)

This fabulous and versatile vegan spinach sauce is a main dish on its own, but you don’t have to stop there. You can pour it over a grain or starch (think rice, cous cous, quinoa, refried leftover mashed potatoes…). If you’re looking to add some protein to your diet, simmer it with lamb, chicken, tofu, seitan, chickpeas or potatoes. You can even puree it with additional vegetable broth or coconut milk for a wonderfully spiced spinach soup (hot or cold). There are many variations on this Indian recipe, of course, but I like this one because it layers the spices, creating a depth that tickles the palate.

Layers of spices and aromatics give this recipe an incredible depth...
The first layer of whole, unground spices flavor the base of the dish through the oil, the second set of ground spices (along with the aromatics--onion, garlic and ginger--bloom and flavor the oil) then coats the protein and is absorbed into the fat of the coconut milk. The garam masala at the very end adds a fresh kick and really does a lot to round out the flavors. The trick here is to have all of your ingredients ready to go—once you start cooking, it all moves pretty quickly!

Here’s what you need…

Protein of choice: 2 lbs. chicken (I like bone-in thighs for maximum flavor, but any pieces will do), 2 lbs. lamb stew meat, tofu cubes, chickpeas, seitan, your choice!

2 Tbs. mild oil for cooking (I prefer olive or coconut)
1 bay leaf
3-4 cardamom pods
3-4 whole cloves
2-3 peppercorns
1 tsp. coriander
2 tsp. cumin
2 large onions, diced
2-inch piece ginger, minced
3-4 garlic cloves, minced
2 tsp. salt
14 oz. coconut milk
1 lb. fresh spinach, chopped (frozen spinach will also work, just be sure to drain well)
¼ tsp. garam masala
Additional salt and pepper, to taste

Heat oil in large sauté pan or heavy pot, add bay leaf, cardamom pods, whole cloves and peppercorns—swirl to flavor oil. Quickly add diced onions, ginger, garlic and salt. Saute over medium high heat until onions begin to brown. Stir in coriander and cumin, allowing flavors to blend. (If adding a protein, add it now). Slowly stir in coconut milk, scraping any browned bits from the bottom of the pan to combine in with the sauce. Stir in chopped spinach, incorporating well. Allow this mixture to simmer and reduce, 20-30 minutes (if using lamb, cover the pot, turn heat to low and simmer slowly until meat is tender). Just before serving, stir in garam masala and season with salt and pepper, to taste.