I’ve avoided Indian food for some time on this blog because it’s just so daunting. Although the menu of most Indian restaurants in the US is uniform, real Indian cuisine is diverse and varied like the country itself. India is a massive mix of different languages, ethnicities, religions, and cultures. There is no way that the food can be boiled down to a handful of recipes. And I have almost no experience cooking Indian food. But I am an expert in eating it – when I was in India I got major props from my colleagues for eating everything in sight and not getting sick! And since I can’t get it on takeout right now, my best option is to cook in.
Indian is my favorite cuisine of all time, and my favorite Indian dish is saag or palak paneer. These two dishes are very similar – palak means spinach in Hindi, so if the dish is labeled palak paneer you know you’re only dealing with spinach. Saag means leafy vegetable, which could be spinach but could also be other veggies like mustard greens. Paneer is a homemade cheese from India. The two dishes are remarkably similar but from my research so far, the biggest difference is what types of leafy greens you use.
I tried to make paneer at home, but my first attempt was, well, less than desirable. I’ll keep working on it, but in the meantime I had to find a substitute because there’s nowhere for me to buy paneer locally at the moment. If you do have access to paneer, by all means use it in this recipe! If you don’t, I recommend replacing it with halloumi cheese. I became a big fan of halloumi when I used it for my Grilled Eggplant and Halloumi Salad. It’s sturdy in texture like paneer, available in most grocery stores in the US, and tastes pretty darn good smothered in spinach. Without further ado, I introduce the Palak Halloumi – otherwise known as Indian-style spinach with halloumi cheese.
And a quick shoutout to all the moms out there today – happy mother’s day! I’ve learned so much about cooking from my mom and other moms. Where would we be without mom’s cooking?
My recipe is adapted from Aarti Sequiera’s recipe from the Food Network, which is pretty amazing if I do say so. My biggest challenge is that I couldn’t get all the ingredients right now, so the main adaptation is around the ingredients that were a challenge.
Start with the halloumi. Keep in mind that halloumi is salty by nature so I don’t recommend adding any salt to this recipe until the very end. Chop the halloumi into 1/2″ cubes and coat in turmeric, cayenne, and oil. This recipe is not overly spicy, but if you’re sensitive to spice you can reduce the cayenne by half.
I strongly recommend using frozen spinach because it’s so easy and the texture will be spot-on. All you have to do is thaw it for 5 minutes in the microwave and then purée it with whatever tool you have available – food processor, high speed blender like a Vitamix, or immersion blenders would work well, a regular blender could work in a pinch. Your goal is to purée the spinach so it’s like baby food.
Now it’s a matter of cooking everything up. Heat the halloumi in a pan until lightly browned on each side, then set aside. Add the garlic, ginger, and hot pepper of choice. This is based on what you can find at the grocery store and your guide to peppers, the Scoville scale. One Serrano pepper is sufficient, but my store didn’t have any so I used half a habanero instead. Proceed with caution if you use habanero, as it’s much spicier than Serrano so you don’t need much. My preparation does have some heat but is not overly spicy so if you’re feeling brave you can increase the heat here.
Sauté everything in some spices, then add the spinach. When well-mixed, remove from heat and add yogurt. It’s challenging to find plain yogurt here without lots of added sugar and flavors, so I opted for one pack of nonfat Greek yogurt which was a nice light flavor. Finish it off by adding the cheese.
Serve with naan if you can find it (shout out to Whole Foods’ garlic roasted naan, it is so good), or serve with basmati rice.
Indian-Style Spinach & Halloumi Cheese (Palak Halloumi)
45 minutes, serves 4
- 4 tablespoons canola oil, divided
- 1 teaspoon turmeric
- 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 10 ounces halloumi cheese, cut into 1/2″ cubes
- 16 ounces frozen spinach
- 12 ounces white onion, finely chopped
- 1 tablespoon ginger, peeled and minced
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 1/2 habanero pepper, minced (substitute 1 Serrano if you prefer)
- 2 teaspoons ground coriander
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1/2 teaspoon garam masala
- 1/2 cup water
- 6 ounces nonfat Greek yogurt, plain
- Salt, to taste
- Microwave-safe bowl
- Large frying pan
- Food processor/blender (to purée spinach)
- In a medium bowl, whisk together 3 tablespoons of oil, turmeric, and cayenne pepper. Toss the halloumi cubes in the mixture. Set aside.
- Thaw the spinach in a microwave-safe bowl for 5 minutes. Add to a food processor or high-speed blender and purée.
- Warm frying pan over medium heat. Add the halloumi cubes. Let them cook , flipping every 2 minutes until lightly browned. Remove from the pan and set aside.
- In the same pan, add 1 tablespoon of canola oil. Add the onion, garlic, ginger, and hot pepper. Sauté the mixture until it’s evenly brown, or for about 15 minutes. If the mixture starts to burn, you can add a tablespoon of water to the pan.
- Add the coriander, cumin, and garam masala. Cook for another 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add another tablespoon of water if it is too dry.
- Add spinach and mix well. Add water, stir, and cook for 5 minutes uncovered.
- Remove from heat. Stir in the yogurt slowly to avoid curdling. Add the halloumi cheese. Turn the heat back on medium low, cover, and cook for 5 minutes. Taste and add salt as needed.
- Serve warm with naan, roti, basmati rice, etc.