Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Saag Saga

If the fall growing season was a race, then the mustards would surely win.  The mustards are always the first to germinate, the first to put on their first true set of leaves, and the first to claim root and shoot space in a crowded garden row.  I have found that if I plant a mesclun mix of salad greens, a mix of seeds that includes multiple types of lettuces, arugula, chard, beets, Asian greens, and a just a few mustard seeds in the mix for spiciness, I always end up with a row that is dominated by Mizuna, a particularly vigorous, feathery variety of mustard, and red-leaved mustard, both of which are varieties of Brassica juncea.  This season, wise to the genetic advantage of the B. juncea clan, I planted the mustards separately from the lettuces, beets, chards, kale, and bok choy.

The mustard-containing seed mix that I planted this year was a Pan-Pacific Stir-Fry Mix, which contained equal parts of Red Mustard, Mizspoona, Pac Choi, and Asian Red Kale.  Red Mustard (Brassica juncea) is actually a type of brown mustard, meaning that it produces brown seeds, that has purple-tinted leaves.  Mizspoona (also Brassica juncea) is a new variety on the greens market that is a cross between Mizuna, the vigoruous, feathery mustard that dominates mesclun mixes, and Tatsoi, a relative of bok choy that grows in a tight rosette of dark-green, spoon-shaped leaves.  Pac Choi (Brassica rapa) is a variety of bok choy, and Asian Red Kale (Brassica oleracea) looks a lot like Red Russian Kale.

Mizspoona must have inherited the vigor of its momma mustard, Mizuna, because it has won the battle for space in my stir-fry greens row.  I recently thinned that row and discovered a good mix of all four plants, but the biggest plants by far, and the ones that were shading out the others, were the Mizspoona.  And, once the row was thinned, I realized that, in thinning around the largest, most-vigorous plants, I had inadvertently turned my stir-fry row into a Mizspoona row.  Discouraging this plant is simply not an option.  Instead, I am going to have to learn how to cook with it.

Saag comes from the Hindi word sãg, which does not have an exact English equivalent, but means, approximately, green leafy vegetable.  Saag can refer to spinach, mustard, bathua (a type of greens grown in Punjab), fenugreek leaves, or it may refer to the gravy that is produced by simmering green leafy vegetables in ghee and spices.  Saag dishes originate from the state of Punjab in northern India, where brown mustard (Brassica juncea) is a staple crop grown for its leaves, seeds, and oils.  In the Punjabi region, mustard is planted in the fall, its leaves are harvested through the winter, and its seeds are harvested in the spring.  Because mustard plants grow quickly and are hardy to insects, temperature fluctuations, and under-watering, mustard is an important source of food for the villagers of the region.  Sarson ka saag, a traditional Punjabi dish, is a gravy prepared by cooking mustard greens in mustard oil.

In the west, the greens used to make saag dishes vary.  Some recipes call for half mustard and half spinach, or any combination of leafy greens, while many recipes simply use spinach.  While I enjoy the flavor of just-spinach dishes such as Palak Paneer (spinach and cheese curry) and Palak Aloo (spinach and potatoes), I think that the flavor of saag dishes in enhanced by spicy greens.  I made Saag Paneer (greens and cheese curry) with the combination of red kale, Mizspoona, mustard, and bok choy leaves thinned from my Asian stir-fry row, and the resulting dish was tangy, spicy, satisfying, and full of greens power.

Saag Paneer

2 cups fresh paneer
1 pound spicy greens (mustard, kale, and/or Asian greens)
1 pound mild greens (spinach, chard, and/or beet greens)
1/4 - 1/2 cup ghee
2 tablespoons cumin seeds
1 onion, coursely chopped
4-6 cloves of garlic, minced
1 tablespoon fresh ginger, minced
1 tablespoon turmeric
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup water
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 cup plain yogurt
1/4 cup cream

Make the fresh paneer about six hours before cooking the rest of the dish, so that the paneer has time to be pressed.  Or buy fresh paneer cheese at an Indian grocery store.  Once the paneer is set, chop it into half-inch pieces.

Remove and compost any tough stems, yellowed leaves, or dead leaves from the greens.  If the leaves are large, remove the tough parts of the central vein and chop the leaves into large pieces.  Wash the greens thoroughly - I double soak (soak, drain water and dirt, soak again) greens harvested from my garden to get rid of all the soil, mulch, and bugs that inevitably end up in the harvest bowl - then use a salad spinner or towels to remove excess water from the greens.  At this point, after removing non-edible parts of the greens, there should be about two pounds of greens ready to be cooked.

Heat 1/4 cup of ghee in a large frying pan.  Fry the paneer pieces in the ghee, turning periodically, until the paneer begins to brown.  Be careful not to over-fry the paneer because it can get tough.  Set aside the fried pieces of paneer on a paper-towel-lined plate.  (Frying the paneer is optional.)

Toss the cumin seeds into the heated ghee that remains in the frying pan.  Cook the cumin seeds, stirring continuously, until they begin to brown.  Add the onion to the pan and cook, stirring periodically, over medium heat until the onion begins to soften, about five minutes.  Add the garlic and ginger and cook for a minute or two longer, stirring to prevent the garlic from sticking to the bottom of the pan.

Add the turmeric, salt, and 1/2 cup of water, and stir thoroughly.  (The intensely-colored turmeric paste will quickly stain plastic utensils, counter tops, and floors, as well as clothes, so be careful and have a rag ready to immediately clean up spatters.)  Begin adding the greens to the frying pan - as much as will fit - then cover with a lid to steam the greens.  As room becomes available in the pan, continue adding greens until all of the greens have been cooked down.  Add the other 1/2 cup (to cup) of water to the pan as needed to continue steaming the greens.

Transfer the contents of the frying pan into a food processor or blender.  If needed, do this in two or three batches so that the food processor is not overloaded.  Coursely grind the greens.

Heat the remaining 1/4 cup of ghee in the frying pan.  (This step can be skipped to reduce fat.)

Return the pureed greens mixture to the frying pan and stir to combine with the heated ghee.  Stir in the ground coriander, ground cumin, chili powder, and cayenne.  Cover the pan with a lid and simmer the greens mixture for 10 to 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Take care when removing the pan's lid and stirring, because the greens mixture may splatter and can burn.

Add the paneer pieces to the greens mixture and stir to distribute.  Simmer the mixture for another 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Stir in the yogurt and cream (optional) and heat through.  Add salt to taste.

Serve hot over steamed basmati rice or with Indian breads such as naan or roti.

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