Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Spinach and Farmer Cheese Curry (Palak Paneer)

Palak paneer is a South Asian curry made of palak (spinach) and paneer (Indian cheese). It is popular throughout Northern India and Pakistan, especially in the Punjab region where it is a common vegetarian dish.

Spinach is thought to have originated in Nepal, and through Muslim conquests and trade, was spread to China by 647, and later Spain and other parts of the Muslim world. Spinach was a favorite vegetable of Catherine de' Medici of Florence, Italy, and to this day dishes served on a bed of spinach are referred to as a la Florentine.

The world’s largest producer of spinach is China, followed by the United States. California grows almost three quarters of the vegetable produced in this country.

Spinach is considered to be highly nutritious as popularized by the American cartoon Popeye. Although high in iron and calcium, the type of iron spinach contains (non-heme) as well as high levels of oxalate render these minerals difficult to absorb. In addition, the vegetable contains high levels of Vitamins A, B9, C and K. These are highest in fresh or steamed spinach; cooked or boiled spinach has dramatically lower levels of these vitamins and minerals. In fact, cooked broccoli and cauliflower have twice the iron of cooked spinach.

Fresh spinach loses its nutritional value the longer it is stored. Research also shows it to be one of the most heavily pesticide-contaminated vegetables. In addition, it has been the vector for recent E. coli and salmonella outbreaks.

Despite these nutritional limitations and health concerns, which I must admit were largely unknown to me before writing this posting, palak paneer is a tasty and filling curry. It will last up to five days in the refrigerator.

Serves 6 to 8

2 pounds chopped frozen spinach
5 tablespoons vegetable oil
10 - 14 ounces paneer, cut in 1/2 inch cubes (or use extra firm tofu)
2 teaspoons garlic paste or minced garlic
3 teaspoons ginger paste or minced ginger
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
1 large onion, chopped
1 teaspoon of salt, or to taste
2 medium tomatoes, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon of cayenne or chilli powder
2 tablespoons coriander powder
2 teaspoons garam masala
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
up to 1 cup full or low fat sour cream (optional)
1/4 cup fresh cilantro leaves

1. Defrost spinach in the microwave according to package instructions. Set aside to cool. Do not remove excess water.
2. Heat half the oil in a large cooking pot on medium-low. Add paneer and cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until light golden brown. Set aside. If using tofu it may take longer to brown.
3. Add the remaining oil and garlic, ginger and cumin seeds. After 3 minutes add onion and salt, and sauté for 5 minutes on medium heat until translucent. Add the tomatoes and continue cooking for 5 more minutes.
4. Transfer onion/tomato mixture to a blender and process for 30 seconds. Add a little water if necessary. Return to pot and add cayenne/chilli powder, coriander, garam masala and turmeric.
5. Mix thoroughly and simmer on low.
6. Transfer spinach to the blender (in more than one batch if necessary). Blend for 30 seconds until mixed. If necessary, add 1/2 to 1 cup of water.
7. Pour contents back into pot and mix well. Add sour cream and paneer and heat until bubbling.
8. Garnish with fresh cilantro. Serve warm with rice or bread (chappatis, parathas or naan).

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Cherry Apricot Salsa

Cherry season is in full swing in New York – from Hamptons road-side stands to suburban barbeques, I’ve been inundated with these juicy, red orbs.

Cherries originated in Anatolia, in what is present day Turkey. They were brought to Rome in antiquity from the town of Cerasus (present day Giresun) from which the word cherry is derived. In addition to their fruit, cherry trees are known for their beautiful flowers.

Most cherry cultivars are derived from the wild cherry; the sour cherry, a separate species, is mostly used for cooking. Cherries contain anthocynanins which are antioxidants that are thought to reduce pain and inflammation. Turkey leads world production of cherries, followed by the United States, Iran, Italy and Russia.

I recently remembered a delicious cherry salsa that my friend Karen made years ago in Boston. It requires some heavy chopping (and pitting cherries, which can be difficult), but is a great starter for an outdoor meal. I made the salsa on Friday for a picnic we had with our friends Annika and Christoph in Carl Schurz Park.

The key to success is to use ripe fruit, especially ripe apricots. Mine were a bit too firm, but the salsa still went over well. You can keep it for up to three days but it is best served fresh. Leftovers can also be used as a tangy complement to grilled chicken.

Remember that cherry juice can stain clothing so don’t wear white. The best way to remove a cherry stain is to put the clothing in boiling water.

3/4 lb ripe fresh cherries, pitted, quartered
3/4 lb ripe fresh apricots, pitted, diced (to size of cherry quarters)
3 green onions, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons basil, finely shredded
2 teaspoons fresh thyme
1 lime, juiced
2 tablespoons orange juice
2 tablespoons honey
1 teaspoon garlic paste or minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon salt

1. In a large bowl mix cherries, apricots, green onions, basil and thyme.
2. In a small bowl beat together lime juice, orange juice, honey, garlic and salt.
3. Pour juices over fruit and mix well. Store in the refrigerator overnight to allow the flavors to mingle.
4. Serve at room temperature with tortilla chips.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Strawberry Shortcake

As a child I thought of Strawberry Shortcake as a doll with scented hair, along with her friends Huckleberry Pie and Blueberry Muffin which were part of a 32-character line (all with dessert-themed names) created in the 1980s. The Strawberry Shortcake fad included stickers, clothes, video games, and many other items. Consumer demand waned after several years, but was revived with mild success in 2002 and has another planned relaunch this year with a film and a television series.

It wasn’t until my adulthood that I experienced the dessert that inspired the character. Shortcakes are thus named because they use shortening, and are a European invention that dates to at least the 16th century. Shakespeare makes a reference to shortcake in The Merry Wives of Windsor.

The combination of shortcake and strawberries, however, is an American invention. The earliest known recipe is from an 1847 cookbook where it is called Strawberry Cake. The dessert became very popular in the 1850s and 1860s as the first transcontinental railroad made it possible for fresh strawberries to be shipped nationally. Advertisers induced strawberry fever by encouraging demand for the fruit; strawberry shortcake parties became popular as a celebration of the coming summer.

Originally, strawberry shortcake was meant to be made from piecrust in a round or in pieces covered with strawberries. The current dominant version uses a scone or biscuit. Some modern recipes use a sponge cake, especially common in Japan where strawberry shortcake is a favorite Christmas or birthday cake. While strawberry shortcake is the most common version of the dessert, shortcakes can be served with peaches, blueberries or other summer fruit. Some recipes call for flavored shortcakes; coconut is the most common variant. I suggest serving the shortcake with vanilla ice cream for a more substantive finish to a summer meal.

Leftover shortcakes can be refrigerated for several days or frozen for up a month (thaw overnight in the refrigerator and then bring up to room temperature). You can also eat them for breakfast - toasted and spread with butter and berry jam.

Serves 6

1 3/4 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
1/4 cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/4 cup cold unsalted butter (1/2 stick), cut into chunks
1/2 cup buttermilk
1/4 cup + 1 tablespoon heavy cream
zest from one orange

Strawberry Topping
1 to 2 pints strawberries, washed, stems removed and quartered
2 tablespoons orange juice or Cointreau
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice (optional)

vanilla ice cream and whipped cream, to serve

1. To make biscuits, in a large bowl, mix flour, sugar, cornstarch and baking powder.
2. Using a pastry cutter or two knives work in butter until it resembles coarse meal.
3. Make a well in the center of the flour mixture and add buttermilk, 1/4 cup cream and orange zest.
4. Stir with a fork until a dough just forms.
5. Turn dough out onto a floured surface and knead until it just holds together.
6. Place dough back in the large bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate at least 30 minutes.
7. Preheat oven to 375 F.
8. On a floured surface, pat out dough until 1/2 inch thick. Cut out shortcakes using a 3-inch circular cutter.
9. Transfer shortcakes to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Brush lightly with remaining heavy cream and sprinkle with sugar.
10. Bake for 15 to 20 or until golden brown. Transfer to a rack to cool.
11. To make strawberry topping, gently mix all the ingredients. Stand at room temperature for 1 hour before serving.
12. To serve, slice shortcake in half horizontally. Place a scoop of ice cream on the bottom, add strawberry topping and top with shortcake top. Serve with a dollop of homemade whipped cream. Alternately, skip ice cream and place whipped cream in shortcake sandwich.