Tandoori chicken and saag paneer, spiced spinach combined with cubed white cheese, are so popular that if I owned an Indian restaurant, these dishes would be printed at the top of each waiter’s order pad to just check off when customers ordered them.
Even people who love saag paneer will, I think, enjoy making my tofu version at home. First, using tofu in place of the cheese means you don’t have to look for paneer. Second, tofu contains plenty of protein and far less fat. After I press it, I pan-sear the cubes so the tofu takes on golden color and becomes pleasingly chewy.
Pressing tofu squeezes out water. Soybeans have a nutty flavor you can notice after this water is eliminated. Compacting it also makes the tofu springy. I won’t say it gets as chewy as chicken breast but it is more enjoyable.
Because it is drier, pressed tofu seared in a skillet develops a delicious golden crust. Be sure, when sautéing to use enough oil to keep the tofu from sticking. If you have a well-seasoned cast iron pan, that is the best choice, although I do not use one here because the tomatoes and spinach taste metallic when cooked in cast iron.
Indian cooks usually purée the spinach in saag or cook it down until it is very soft. I sauté it until tender and leave the spinach whole, giving this saag a meatier texture, if I can say that of a vegan dish.
On an ecological note, pressing tofu uses lots of paper towels. Since all they absorb is water, I spread them out and reuse the dried towels for cleaning.
If you hesitate to eat tofu, this recipe shows you a delicious way to enjoy it.
Spinach Saag with Golden Tofu
1 package (12-14 oz.) package firm tofu
2 bags (5 oz.) baby spinach
3 Tbsp. canola oil, divided
1 ¼ cups finely chopped onion
1 Tbsp. chopped garlic
1 ½ tsp. grated ginger, or 1 Tbsp. finely chopped
1 green or red chile pepper, chopped (seeds optional)
1 Tbsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. ground coriander
1 tsp. garam masala
1/2 tsp. ground turmeric
2 vine tomatoes, seeded and chopped
Drain tofu and halve block horizontally into 2 slabs. Line baking sheet with 3 layers of paper towels. Place tofu slabs on baking sheet, touching side by side. Cover tofu with 2 layers of paper towels. Set another baking sheet on top of tofu. Place 4 large cans on top of baking sheet. (Canned tomatoes or beans work well.) Or use 2 large cans and then place empty cast iron skillet on top of them. Press for 20 minutes.
While tofu presses, rinse spinach and drain in colander. Pat spinach with paper towels or whirl in salad spinner, in batches, if necessary, until almost dry. Set spinach aside.
Cut pressed tofu into 3/4-inch cubes. Place tofu in bowl, add 1 tablespoon oil and gently toss to coat tofu.
Heat 1 tablespoon oil in medium skillet over medium-high heat. Arrange tofu in 1 layer and cook until golden on bottom, 3-4 minutes. Turn and cook cubes until golden to brown on 2 more sides, about 6 minutes in all, then transfer to plate and set aside. Wipe out pan, and return to heat.
Heat remaining 1 tablespoon oil over medium-high heat. Add onions and cook until they start to color, 5 minutes, stirring often. Add garlic, ginger and chile pepper and stir for 1 minute. Add cumin, coriander, garam masala and turmeric, stirring until spices coat onions and are fragrant, 30 seconds. Mix in tomatoes and cook, stirring occasionally, until mixture is moist and lumpy, 4 minutes. Add half the spinach, mixing until it collapses, 3 minutes. Add remaining spinach and stir until it collapses, 2 minutes. Add tofu and cook, stirring often, until spinach is very moist, 4 minutes. Continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until spinach is tender, about 3 minutes. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground pepper.
Makes 4 servings.
Per serving: 221 calories, 14 g total fat (1g saturated fat), 16 g carbohydrate, 11 g protein, 4 g dietary fiber, 101 mg sodium.