Wild greens simmered with coconut milk, garlic, tumeric, ginger, spices and hot chilis topped with fried cheese? Please, and thank you.
I was trained to make classic French and European food, but the more I work with ingredients I harvest, the less my teaching helps me. Basically, from my experience, Anglo-Saxon or European cultures don’t have anything close to the reverence that other cultures do for leafy green plants. As my diet includes a lot of wild plants, this has forced me to cook out of my comfort zone a bit, and it’s been a really good journey for me as a cook.
A traditional recipe for amaranth greens
This is a pretty simple recipe, and one that there are a lot of versions for online. The reason it was on my short list of things to make is that I see a lot of versions of saag paneer, and various other saags, using amaranth. From what I’ve read, you could put amaranth in any recipe that starts with the word “saag”, which is basically a catch-all term for greens.
In the U.S., it seems to me like we rarely have dishes that specifically call for a particular plant besides the occasional discussions of what type of lettuce goes into a wedge (for the record I like gem or iceberg). So, anytime I find traces of what could be a dish that evolved around, or traditionally calls for a particular green, especially a maligned and/or foraged one like amaranth, I take notice.
If you haven’t had it (I hadn’t until I worked through a couple variations) Saag Paneer is basically curried greens, with some sauteed or stewed cheese nuggets. It sounds good, and it is, which is why you can find it everywhere in the ready-to-reheat frozen aisle at pretty much every grocery store. The only problem is that it’s, well, kinda ugly.
Whenever I make something out of my wheelhouse, like last year when I made a video on cooking Nigerian goat pepper soup, I take a look at a lot of different recipes, identify similarities, ditch what I don’t like and go from there.
Versions with pureed greens
With saag paneer, there was one thing I saw a lot of recipes call for that I knew I would not do: puree the greens and cook them again. It may be traditional in some places but, for me, part of the interest of eating greens I forage is the unique texture of each one.
For example, common amaranth (Amaranthus retroflexus) has delicious, thick & tender stems (when picked at the right time) that give it some good weight compared to other greens, most notably it’s cousin lamb’s quarter.
A workhorse recipe for all those foraged greens
Even so, you can, and should use all kinds of foraged greens for this, and cultivated ones too. At the end of the day it’s really just a workhorse recipe for using up the bounty of wild greens that plant hunters end up with during the season, or if you’re like me and like to keep them in the freezer, the Winter and off-season.
Wild caraway seed
A lot of times, an aromatic seed is sauteed with the aromatics before the greens are added, usually it’s cumin or mustard seeds, but since I had some, I opted for wild caraway in my last batch, which was a great variation. Adding the whole seeds gives you a little pop here and there-a lot more exciting than just adding a powdered seasoning.
Whatever you make it with, the recipe I’ve developed here is a great one to hang onto for whenever you get a craving for greens. Try it sometime you’re in the mood for some mildly spicy curry.
Traditional Saag Paneer with Amaranth Greens
- 1 lb fresh or blanched and frozen amaranth
- 1 16 oz can coconut milk high fat
- 1 tablespoon minced ginger
- 3 cloves of garlic
- 1/2 tablespoon minced fresh tumeric optional
- 1 small onion finely chopped to yield 1 cup
- 1 teaspoon garum masala I buy mine in bulk from a coop
- 1-2 whole serrano chilis with seeds (1 for a mild dish, 2 for hot)
- 1/8 teaspoon wild caraway or conventional caraway or cumin seeds toasted
- 8 oz paneer cheese cut into small rectangles or cubes (optional, and halloumi can be substituted)
- Kosher salt
- 1/4 cup ghee coconut oil, or lard
- If your amaranth greens are raw, blanch it in salted water for a few seconds until wilted, then shock in an ice bath to chill. Remove the amaranth greens, squeeze out the water, and coarsely chop. You want the greens to hold some texture, but they should be able to fit on a spoon-just look out for long stems.
- In a food processor, or in a mortar and pestle, coarsely pulse or pound 1 teaspoon of salt with the serrano, garlic, ginger, onion and tumeric until coarse-fine.
- Add the ground aromatics with the oil to a large cast iron skillet and cook on medium heat for 5 minutes. Add the caraway and garum masala and cook 5 minutes more.
- Add the coconut milk, and amaranth and simmer until the mixture is thickened slightly, about 10 minutes, it should be spoonable, but not soupy. Meanwhile, quickly pan fry the cheese on one side only, as overcooking can make them tough. You can also just warm them up in the greens when you add the coconut milk, but it isn't as pretty.
- Double check the seasoning for salt, adjust as needed, then serve immediately with rice or flatbread.