A few weeks ago, I was digging into a meal of saag paneer at one of my favorite Indian restaurants (Zareen’s in Palo Alto!), when it occurred to me that the texture of the soft fresh paneer cheese in the dish was very similar to the texture of extra-firm tofu.
I decided there and then to come up with a vegan riff on this dish so that everyone can enjoy it, even if you’re eating dairy-free.
Saag paneer is a dish that hails from the Northern part of the Indian subcontinent. The words “saag” and “paneer” translate from Punjabi to “greens” and “cheese.”
When you order Saag Paneer in a restaurant in the United States, it’s usually made with spinach (a.k.a. palak) but occasionally other greens such as mustard or fenugreek are included as well. Mixed in with the greens are pieces of paneer, a fresh, mild cheese.
I’ve made saag paneer several times at home, mostly following the recipe in the amazing cookbook 660 Curries by Raghavan Iyer, but I’d never tried it with tofu. I also decided to make one more change and prepare my saag tofu in my Instant Pot.
Using the Instant Pot (or other electric pressure cooker) allows you to walk away while it’s cooking, rather. No need to hang around the kitchen watching a pot or skillet as it bubbles away on the stove.
You can also leave the finished dish on the “keep warm setting” for literally hours and hours. Since the pot holds foods above 140oF, it’s perfectly safe to let the food wait for you for up to 10 hours! You can even make it in the morning and it will still be piping hot at dinnertime
Before searing the tofu, I like to press it down gently with paper towels, just to draw out some of the moisture. This helps keep it from sputtering too much in the pan, and makes the texture a bit firmer, too.
I use a fairly generous amount of oil in this recipe — five tablespoons all told. It comes out to a little more than a tablespoon per serving, and it really helps to carry the flavors of the spices in the garam masala. You can cut down on the oil by up to half if you prefer things a little lighter!
Since searing tofu can have a tendency to stick to stainless steel, I usually brown in a nonstick pan on the stovetop while I’m cooking the onions in the electric pressure cooker. You end up using two pans, but on the plus side, you save on the cooking time since the onions and tofu are cooking at the same time!
My favorite versions of this dish are a little homier and rough in texture, with visible pieces of spinach rather than a smooth puree. I stayed true to that in this recipe.
When you’re shopping for frozen spinach, look for the chopped variety that comes in a bag. It should be loosely packed and fluffy, rather than frozen in a solid block. This helps it to thaw quickly enough that you can actually stir it into the pot while it’s still frozen. If all you can find is boxed frozen spinach, make sure to defrost it before adding it to the pot.
Finally, add the garam masala at the very end of cooking. Since this dish simmers for so long, the flavors of the spices can become muted. Mixing them in just before serving means they stay vibrant and flavorful. Try it out this way and you’ll be amazed at how the flavors pop! (Look for garam masala in the spice section of your grocery store, or order it online.)
You can do a quick pressure release, or let it release naturally, which will take about 20 minutes. Either way, enjoy your Saag Tofu piping hot, served with rice or warm naan.