The Saags of Quarantine

I totally missed the memo about sourdough, so instead I’ve spent quarantine attempting to master saag tofu–a vegan version of the popular Indian dish saag paneer. I must have made some form of saag tofu at least 20 times since last March, and I’m not sick of it yet.

My experiments have been based on two recipes. The first is Madhur Jaffrey’s saag paneer, which I made with J before going vegan. This is a simple recipe with few ingredients and no spices, except to dust the paneer. To make it dairy-free, I replace single cream with cashew cream or coconut cream. The second is Nisha Vora’s palak paneer with tofu, which is more complex: there are whole spices tempered in hot oil as well as ground spices, tomatoes and onions in addition to spinach, and many stages.

I’ve found that Madhur Jaffrey’s recipe is more what I’m looking for. This may be a matter of personal preference, but I like my saag to be intensely spinach-y, and tomatoes and onions just get in the way. I also found that adding tempered spices gives the dish a toasty taste, which works nicely in dal but not so nicely in a saag dish.

As for the “paneer,” I’ve tried boiling, baking, frying, and adding it raw. I even tried marinating the tofu in a lemon-miso mixture, which gave it a nice appearance but had little effect on the taste. At the end of the day, I prefer just pressing and cubing some tofu and then stirring it in a minute before serving. I don’t recommend letting the tofu cook for too long, as it will get soggy sitting in the spinach mixture.

Spice-wise, the most important thing seems to be using ample ginger. Err on the side of ginger! It tastes great and it tenderizes the spinach. Garlic is less important. I prefer serrano peppers to jalapenos in this dish, but instacart being what it is, I’ve had to use jalapenos many times and the result is far from terrible. As in the Madhur Jaffrey recipe I prefer to add no dry spices, except that I’ve taken to stirring in a few tablespoons of fenugreek leaves right at the end. You could easily leave these out, though.

In summary, here is the recipe I’ve converged upon. I really like it, but I don’t doubt that it could be improved. Let me know if you have any suggestions!

Saag Tofu

  • 1 inch knob of ginger, peeled
  • 4 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 1 serrano pepper, coarsely chopped
  • Neutral oil
  • 1 lb spinach (I usually use frozen)
  • 1/2 tsp salt, more to taste
  • Cashew cream or coconut cream, to taste
  • 1-2 T fenugreek leaves
  • 1 pkg extra-firm tofu, pressed and chopped into 1/2-1 inch cubes

Place ginger, garlic, and pepper in a blender with a few tablespoons of water and blend into a smooth paste. Heat a bit of oil in a medium-sized pot and add the paste. Fry for a few minutes. Add the spinach and stir to incorporate. Cover and cook for at least 20 minutes (if using frozen spinach, the 20 minutes should start after all the spinach is defrosted) or more if you have the time–I’ve cooked it for up to an hour and it seems to just get better over time. If you cook for a long time, you made need to add a few splashes of water of cream to prevent the spinach mixture from drying out.

5-10 minutes before you want to eat, add the salt and then pulse the spinach in a blender until broken down and creamy but not too smooth–err on the side of under-blending or you may wind up with a “smoothie” texture. You can also blend the spinach in the pot with a hand blender. Return the spinach to the pot and heat it up again on medium-low heat. Add the fenugreek and cream to taste and stir to incorporate. Add the tofu and stir gently to cover the tofu with the sauce. Allow the tofu to cook for 2-3 minutes but do not do any additional stirring, since this will break up the tofu. Serve immediately.

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