I was recently set a creative cooking challenge by my good friend, Brigi. She is quite the expert in farming and produce matters. I was given the challenge to cook a delicious dish, with the oriental vegetables below. Their names are: Asian water spinach (Ung Choy), Chinese broccoli (Gai Lan), and Tong Ho (chrysanthemum coronarium). I’d never come across these oriental green in supermarkets before, but the point of this blog, is to show how I experimented when set a challenge. I felt very excited at the finished dish.
I started by tasting each of the leaves. The peppery taste of Tong Ho, coupled with the resemblance of Chinese broccoli to mustard greens, inspired me to create a saag style dish with these oriental greens. Luckily, the end dish tasted great, and my fussy mum said it was a little better than nanima’s (we didn’t tell her that so shhh). My dear friend, Brigi, approved so a win-win. I have named this dish ‘dadima’s oriental saag’ – staying true to the origin of the vegetables.
So, what is saag?
In a nutshell, saag is a traditional Punjabi dish, and one that dadima’s usually cook very well in India – my two grandmothers definitely do! Mum and dad often debate who cooks the best version. Saag is a cooked mixture of leafy green vegetables, simmered with spices and tharka (the masala sauce). The vegetables are boiled and simmered in water, until they are tender enough to mash into a puree. Corn flour is then added to thicken this green vegetable mixture, whilst it simmers slowly in a chilled-out style (only cook this when you’re not in a rush). Finally, a tharka (masala sauce), is made in a separate pan, and added to the pureed greens.
My love for saag must have started when mum was expecting me, as she tells me stories of how she ate it regularly throughout her pregnancy, but would only eat my nanima’s recipe. It was therefore only right, that nanima’s saag featured in my book. Nanima (my nan), taught me how to cook saag, and I’m going to share her techniques with you below (I’m sure there’s many variations across families). I want everyone to be able to make saag in their own home, because it’s one of those home-cooked, soul-food kind of dishes, that is a labour of love (nanima’s recipe is in my cookbook – pp.206- 208).
The Punjabi saag which I’ve grown up on, includes mustard greens and spinach, and my nanima is super fussy on her mustard greens. However, saag can also be made by combining a few of the following greens: kale, fenugreek, broccoli, brussel sprouts and spring greens. In this new recipe, inspired by Brigi’s green vegetables, I worked with the oriental greens above. Work with me here – I know the recipe is lengthy because of my explanations, but you’ll see that it’s worth it if you ever cook it.
You will need a hand blender.
Makes: About 12-15 servings, depending on how much you eat (freeze whatever you don’t need/use). I always cook extra to freeze for those busy days.
- Leafy greens: For my oriental version, I used 400g of water spinach, 300g of Gai Lan (chinese broccoli), a handful of small Tong Ho, a handful of large Tong Ho, and 400g of spinach. However, my usual choice is 500g spinach and 3 bunches of mustard greens. Wash and chop the vegetables, including the stalks. If you are using broccoli, chop the stalk into really small chunks so that it cooks easily.
- Water from a freshly boiled kettle (enough to cover the greens)
- 1 handful of fresh fenugreek, washed and chopped (use dried fenugreek if you can’t get hold of fresh – sold as Kasuri Methi in Indian supermarkets – I prefer fresh though)
- 2 teaspoons salt, or adjust to taste
- 4 large garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped (add more if you’re a garlic lover)
- 35g fresh ginger, peeled and grated
- 3 green finger chillies, finely chopped, or to taste (my family love chillies)
- 100g medium cornmeal flour or maize flour (also known as makki ki atta)
To make the tharka (enough for about 4 servings)
- 2 tablespoons ghee or 4 tablespoons rapeseed oil (I’m a ghee-lover when cooking saag)
- 1 onion, diced (add more if you like a fuller-flavoured tharka)
- 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 20g fresh root ginger, peeled and grated
- 200g paneer, cut into small cubes (you can buy ready-made paneer from most supermarkets). Alternatively, if you can’t, follow my recipe for fresh paneer in the blog here). Paneer is optional.
- Salt, to taste
- 1 teaspoon of garam masala
This dish is PERFECT for freezing, and in fact, my nanima cooks it for the whole family to freeze. What I like about eating home-made saag, is I know how fussy I am with the greens, and I know that I’ve picked them carefully for their quality taste. It’s time-consuming to make, so take full advantage of your freezer. I like to freeze it without the tharka (stop at step 12). The saag always tastes best when fresh tharka is added, as it lifts the flavour immediately and just melts in your mouth (my mouth is watering as I type).
To cook the saag:
- Add the chopped spinach and mustard greens (or other greens of your choice) to a large, deep cooking pot.
- Add enough boiling water to just cover the vegetables. Push them down with a spoon to ensure that they are fully immersed. Add the fenugreek, salt, garlic, ginger and green chillies. Bring to the boil and stir.
- Half cover, and simmer over a low heat for around 40 minutes, or until the greens have softened.
- Remove from the heat and use a hand-blender to blend the contents into a pulp. Make sure that you keep the blender fully immersed so that the water doesn’t spray out everywhere.
- Return to the hob. Stir over a high heat for 2 minutes, then half cover and simmer for 40-45 minutes until the liquid has reduced in the pan by about a third.
- Mix the cornmeal with cold water in a bowl to form a medium thickness paste – this will help the saag to bind together and thicken.
- Take the saag off the heat and carefully stir in the cornmeal paste. My nanima advises to remove the pan from the heat, because as soon as cornmeal has been added, there is a rather fierce spitting action from the pan (and those spits can hurt, as I’ve learnt!)
- Still off the heat, add around 500ml of boiling water and stir well. This is needed to balance out the cornmeal.
- Return to a low heat, half cover and simmer for 40-45 minutes until it thickens. Stir occasionally during this time to check nothing is sticking (take off the heat when you stir to reduce spitting action).
- Remove from the heat. If needed (you will do if you’re using broccoli), use a hand-blender to blend the saag again so that it becomes a smoother pulp-like consistency. Stir.
- Simmer, uncovered, on a low heat for a further hour until a medium thickness consistency. You’ll need to check on it and stir regularly to gauge how it’s doing. Taste for salt during this time. The longer you can simmer it, the better. As a guide, you’ll know when it’s done when it comes together in one stir, and has no watery bubbles around the edges of the mixture. The volume of liquid will have reduced significantly since the start of cooking. If serving saag on the day, make your tharka in a separate pan, and add as much saag as you need to the tharka.
To make the tharka:
- Heat the ghee in a saucepan, and once sizzling, add the onions and salt. Cook until golden brown and soft.
- Add the garlic and ginger and cook for 2-3 minutes.
- Add the chunks of paneer (optional) and stir through, coating fully in the onions. Cover over and simmer for 4 minutes, or until the paneer has just softened.
- Add enough saag for 4 portions and stir through. Sprinkle over the garam masala.
- Serve piping hot. Saag is typically enjoyed with makki di roti (cornmeal chapatis). Alternatively, you can enjoy with fresh chapatis, or even a paratha if you are feeling a little indulgent.
Do give this a try and feel free to e-mail me if you have any questions on firstname.lastname@example.org. Send me your saag photos, as I’d love to see how it turns out!
Note to myself- make a video on saag!
Thanks to my good friend Brigi for supplying these exciting greens.