Fenugreek (Recipe: saag paneer)
I love spring cleaning.
In my house, spring cleaning gets underway not in April or May, but when there's a snowstorm, the kind that strands me at the end of our uphill driveway while I wait for extrication by the plow guy. This winter, we've seen only a few random snowflakes, but a recent heavy rain triggered the urge to get the cleanout started.
My favorite thing about spring cleaning is that I find stuff. Hidden stuff. Long-lost stuff. Forgotten stuff. Last week, I found:
- The Food of India, a lovely cookbook that still bears its Costco sale sticker (I lose all self-control in the under-$10 cookbook aisle). It was on the bottom of a pile of books on the floor next to my bed, along with Bill Buford's Heat, some books about art, and a trashy legal thriller or two.
- A jar of fenugreek seeds, misplaced three layers deep in the back of the spice rack behind the cinnamon and nutmeg.
Though fenugreek is popular in the cuisines of Ethiopia and Egypt, Turkey, Armenia and Yemen, it's curry — and curiosity — that brought fenugreek to my pantry. Indian cooking is not my forte; I'm much more comfortable poking around in the cuisines of other parts of Asia. So I'm learning, and starting to stock my Indian pantry.
Fenugreek seeds, which look a bit like kibble, come from a plant in the bean family, native to western Asia and southeastern Europe. A key ingredient in Indian pickles and chutneys, fenugreek's aroma is actually what we think of as the aroma of hot curry and vindaloo blends; a poor-quality curry will smell harsh if it contains too much fenugreek.
An essential ingredient of panch phoron, the Indian five-spice powder, as well as Ethiopian berbere, fenugreek pairs well with fish, legumes, potatoes and tomatoes. Dry-roasting the seeds just slightly gives them a nutty, somewhat maple-sugar taste; in fact, fenugreek is used in the commercial production of artificial maple syrup. You can steep the seeds in hot water to make a tea, or grind roasted seeds and infuse as a coffee substitute.
In ancient times, fenugreek was heralded as both an aphrodisiac and a cure for baldness. In the modern kitchen, it's a cure for blandness.
Paneer (cheese) is easy to make at home, and even easier to buy in an Indian market. Or, you can substitute extra-firm tofu in this recipe from The Food of India, by Priya Wickramasinghe and Carol Selva Rajah. Serves 4.
1 lb spinach leaves or baby spinach
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp fenugreek seeds
1 Tbsp canola oil
1 red onion, thinly sliced
5 garlic cloves, chopped
7 oz canned chopped tomatoes
3/4 inch piece of fresh ginger, grated
1 tsp garam masala
8 oz paneer (or extra-firm tofu), cubed
Blanch the spinach leaves in boiling water for 2 minutes, then refresh in cold water, drain, and very finely chop. Place a small frying pan over low heat and dry-roast the cumin until aromatic. Remove, dry-roast the coriander, then the fenugreek.
Heat the oil in a heavy frying pan over low heat, and fry the onion, garlic, cumin, coriander and fenugreek until grown and aromatic. Stir in the tomato, ginger and garam masala, and bring to the boil. Add spinach and cook until the liquid has reduced. Fold in the paneer (or tofu), trying to keep it in whole pieces. Stir gently until heated through. Season with salt, to taste.