Quick and easy Indian?

No longer a foodie fantasy
By LINDSAY STERLING  |  April 4, 2014

 food_roti_main

Roti is used to scoop up warm and creamy spinach and paneer (cheese).

Indian food is one of my favorite cuisines, but it can be among the most complicated to cook. In my experience, it tends to require 15 spices you don’t have, a lot of work, and extremely long cooking times. The chicken biryani I wrote about here, for example, takes four hours to cook (see “How Much Spice is Humanly Possible,” by Lindsay Sterling, March 8, 2013). That’s not saying it isn’t worth it — it is, especially for a party. But wouldn’t it be great to know a relatively easy Indian dish that you could cook in less than an hour?

I asked my friend Shweta Galway, from Gujarat state in India, what she likes to cook. Growing up in a Hindu family, her mom made vegetarian Indian food every night. “Every day in my household there would be rice, roti, vegetables, and dal,” she recalls. Now a pharmacist and the mom of two young kids, Shweta’s favorite dish to prepare on a weeknight is palak paneer and roti. Palak means spinach. And paneer is the type of cheese that’s mixed into it: fresh and mild, like cottage cheese, ricotta, or farmer’s cheese, but drier and pressed into a block.

There are many longer, more complicated versions of palak paneer than hers, but Shweta has found her method to be fast, tasty, and achievable on a weeknight. One corner-cutting trick Shweta learned from her sister-in-law is to use frozen creamed spinach as an ingredient. Then all you have to do is sauté onions and garlic in olive oil in a large sauté pan, and add the creamed spinach, frozen chopped spinach, spices, and cheese.

And she doesn’t make a custom blend of a lot of different spices. She has faith in the contents of the garam masala in her cabinet. She used Patel Brother’s brand, which is a blend of coriander, red chili, cumin, clove, star anise, mace, fennel seeds, black pepper, bay leaves, cinnamon, dry mango, salt, and clove leaves. She adds two teaspoons of this to the spinach and lets that be that. Her final product, also known as saag paneer (saag being any cooked dish of leafy greens), was kid-friendly with regard to spiciness; you could kick up the heat if you like more intensity.

Roti is a type of flatbread made out of Indian atta flour, which is a light yellow flour used in many South Asian flatbreads and milled from durum wheat. After mixing water into the flour and a little bit of olive oil, Shweta kneads the dough for five minutes until it’s smooth and doesn’t break when stretched. She rolls out little pieces into very thin discs with a tool that looks like a drummer’s drumstick. Shweta’s rotis were each as perfect as a full moon, while mine looked like cartoons of Maine islands. She recalls getting a lot of practice when she was a young girl. “I used to get made fun of when I was little,” she says. “People would say, ‘Oh look, yours has a nose!’ ‘Yours look like India.’ It was fun.”

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