With Beet Greens and Horseradish Leaves
When I set out at the beginning of April to write about spring foods from around the world, I was pretty excited to explore my options. One thing I hadn’t really considered though, was the fact that ‘spring’ doesn’t really mean much in many parts of the world. So I was able to explore foods from Scandinavia (and Northern Europe in general), Japan, Italy, France (..ish), Canada/America/Italy (that was a fun one), and a good ol’ universally appealing dessert. But I wanted to stretch myself a little, so I started looking for spring dishes from countries further south. The problem of course is that many warmer countries don’t really have a spring, or they don’t have one so clearly defined. While I was able to find plenty of countries that celebrated festivals early in the year associated with either agriculture or religion (or both), many of these didn’t seem to come with seasonal, ‘spring’ foods. When I’d all but given up hope (April is technically over after all), I had an idea. And I have Indian food, Slavic food, and my garden to thank for it.
Vaisakhi (or Baisakhi) is an important Punjabi festival commemorating the spring harvest. It’s already come and gone this year (it’s celebrated on April 13th or 14th), but the holiday’s emphasis on sharing food, vegetarian meals, and spring greens got me thinking. Saag paneer is a timeless North Indian classic, and it’s on basically every Indian restaurant menu. Sometimes it’s great, sometimes it’s pretty mediocre – in either case, it’s usually all about the spinach. The thing is, saag just means greens, and within India itself the dish is commonly made with mustard greens, fenugreek greens (methi) and more. After finding a reference to saag paneer made with beet greens, I was captivated by the idea. If you’ve never cooked with beet greens before, they’re an amazing ingredient. They taste wonderful, and they have the same ability to turn foods a vibrant red that you find in the roots. But beet greens alone just didn’t do it for me this time. Cut to me inspecting my garden and wondering what to do with my hilariously hardy horseradish plant (seriously, even the cabbage butterflies can’t put a dent in this thing). I mulled over the idea (which is to say that I fell into a Wikipedia clickstream while researching food), and I realized that I could take the classic Eastern European beet and horseradish sauce and apply it to my greens.
Horseradish greens are not something you find in a lot of stores (horseradish itself is hard enough to find), but anyone who’s ever grown the plant knows that you can get more than enough from your own garden. They’re delicious, tasting rather like the root itself, only milder and, well, greener. So I harvested four young leaves from my garden, bought some lovely beets, and decided to experiment.
Now horseradish isn’t very common in India – it tends to like things a little on the cooler side, meaning it really only does well in the hilly mountainous regions. But that little bit of horseradish worked marvels on this wonderful vegetarian dish. The bright-but-earthy beet greens just perk right up alongside the distinctive, pungent bite of the horseradish. The heat commonly associated with the root is entirely lost during cooking, meaning that the final dish is flavourful but mellow.
The unusual greens were my personal contribution here, but they’re only one part of what makes this a great meal. The key to good saag paneer is attention to the building blocks and spices. The puree of onion, ginger and garlic is the fundamental flavour base of this (and many) Indian dish, and it can’t be rushed. You want to cook it until it’s golden and incredibly fragrant. As for the spices – I realize that Indian meals can look a little intimidating when you see so many ingredients, but these spices are amazingly easy to use, and increasingly easy to find (this dish isn’t even too bad in that respect – a good garam masala does the work of a more diverse array of spices). Seek them out, experiment with them, and you’ll never look back.
The biggest obstacle here is obviously going to be finding horseradish greens. If you don’t have access to garden horseradish, there is actually a decent possibility that you can find a South Asian replacement. The leaves of the tree Moringa oleifera (commonly called moringa, horseradish tree, or drumstick tree) taste a lot like horseradish leaves, though with a less prominent bite. You can find them frozen in many Indian and Filipino grocery stores, and you might even find them fresh. For an easier substitution, you could swap strong mustard greens for the horseradish greens. Mustard greens are common in East and South Asian grocery stores. The beet greens should be easy to find – just buy a couple of very fresh bunches of beets and save the roots for another use. Of course you could make this entire thing with spinach too, though you’ll want to either reduce or omit the water added in the final stage of cooking as spinach gives up a lot of water while it cooks.
Many Indian recipes call for you to cook the onions first, then add the garlic and ginger. You can do this, but I personally like the results I get from cooking them all at the same time. Regardless, you want to make sure that you cook the onion mixture over low enough heat to keep it from burning while still allowing it to become a deep brownish or golden colour. Don’t rush the process – it takes time, but it’s worth it. If you do scorch your onions, remove what you can from the pan or start over, as burnt onions will add a bitter and very sour taste to your final dish.
Garam masala is a very commonly used spice blend, added toward the end of cooking to add warm spice notes. Make sure you buy a good, fresh blend (or make your own – it’s not too tricky).
It’s common for saag paneer to be very, VERY creamy (though it’s not always obvious). But overdoing it on the dairy at the end is a little disappointing; it makes the final meal very rich, but a little bland (not to mention really high in fat). Instead, I used a wonderful plain yogurt – it tempers and mellows the spices while adding a tangy element and keeping the fat WAY down. If you want to, you can use an equal volume of cream, or a mix of the two.
No ingredient pages have been written yet for any of the ingredients in this recipe. Like to see one? Let me know in the comments below or by email.
No pantry pages have been written yet for any of the ingredients in this recipe. Like to see one? Let me know in the comments below or by email.
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