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Julie Sahni's Saag

Sauteeing fresh spinach

Last week something terribly exciting happened: I found fresh spinach at my local green market. That never happens. Yep, Berlin may have many wonderful things now, but fresh spinach at the market still counts as a rarity. (You can sometimes find it at Turkish grocery stores.)

(Proof? My mother-in-law, a fabulous cook and curious human being - curious as in interested in other things, not curious weird! - has literally (in the old-fashioned sense of the word) never bought fresh spinach before in her life. She stared at my enormous bag of it in something akin to wonder.)

(Further proof? Just a week later, that same farmer had nothing even resembling fresh spinach at his stand. Curses!)

I bought a whole kilo (over two pounds) of the spinach and lugged it home where my very obliging mother washed it for me. (She also ironed my stack of linens and shirts the other night while babysitting my child so I could go out and drink wine and have a fancy dinner, so I'm thinking I was probably a lowly insect in a previous life and am now being compensated for it, or something.)

Then I stared at the very large pile(s) of washed fresh spinach and wondered how on earth I was going to cook it all.

Fresh spinach and potatoes

Several years ago, my father resurrected his Very Serious Indian Cooking Phase (VSICP - originating in the early 1980's in Brookline, Massachusetts). He made multi-weekly visits to Moody Street for ingredients, found obscure cookbooks online and subjected his patient, loving wife to cumin and coriander in everything from potatoes to pasta. (Practically.) He planted the bug in me, too. My freezer now is a veritable smorgasbord of Indian spices and thanks to him, I know the difference between ajowan and amchoor.

So! After a few more minutes of staring at the spinach, I headed to the bookshelf and pulled down Julie Sahni. If anyone was going to get over two pounds of spinach under control, it was going to be an Indian.

If there's something that continues to surprise me about Indian cooking, it's how easy it is. You know, you look at the ingredient lists of Indian recipes, ten spices you've barely heard of, and get intimidated, or you think back to your last meal in an Indian restaurant and wonder how a home cook could ever get that complex, multi-layered flavor going in the kitchen. But if you just try, it's so easy. All you really need is a well-stocked spice pantry and these days, with mail-order spice companies and sophisticated grocery stores the world over, there's no excuse for not having one.


In this luscious, lovely recipe, you cook spinach (the original has you combine spinach with stronger-flavored greens, but I just used spinach) and potatoes with a simple blend of spices that will probably be familiar to everyone: cumin, ginger and hot red pepper, plus a little hit of garam masala at the end (if you leave this off, it will be no less delicious, by the way). The key to dish is the long cooking time; the spinach is almost melting at the end and the potatoes have gone all fudgy and sweet. There's a nice heat to the dish, but nothing that will blow your head off and even though the recipe says that it serves 6 to 8 people, I am here to bear witness to the fact that we, um, polished it off with a smaller crowd. (With Classic Indian Cooking open on the kitchen counter, I couldn't stop myself from rounding out the menu with tomato raita and a rice pilaf stuffed with goodies. And in case you're worried about the aforementioned exploitation of my mother, this is the meal I fed her in gratitude.)

Dinner tasted like the best kind of restaurant food, the kind of meal where you sort of can't believe that you were the one who put it on the table. It's like magic.

Bungee jumping, sky diving, that's for other folks; exotic home cooking is my kind of thrill. Have a wonderful weekend, friends.

Julie Sahni's Saag
Adapted from Classic Indian Cooking
Serves 6 to 8 people

2 pounds fresh spinach
1 pound waxy potatoes
5 tablespoons ghee
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon finely chopped garlic
2 green chiles, seeded and minced, or 1/4 teaspoon red pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
3/4 teaspoon garam masala

1. Pick over and discard all the rotting and yellowed spinach leaves. Wash the spinach thoroughly, then drain and pat dry. Chop coarsely.

2. Peel and cut the potatoes into 1.5-inch chunks.

3. Heat the ghee over medium-high heat in a large frying pan, preferably non-stick. When it is very hot, add cumin seeds. When the cumin turns dark (about 10 seconds), add garlic and chili. Stir rapidly for a moment or two, and add potatoes, turning and tossing them until they are lightly browned (about 5-8 minutes). Add about 1 cup of the chopped greens and stir it in. When the greens get limp, add another cup of greens. Continue until all greens are incorporated. Sprinkle with ginger powder and salt. Stir well to mix. Add 1 1/4 cups boiling water, reduce heat and cook, covered, until the potatoes are tender (about 20-25 minutes). Uncover and continue cooking until the excess moisture evaporates (15-30 minutes). The vegetables must be stirred very carefully at this stage, as the potatoes break easily. 

4. Increase heat to medium and continue cooking, stirring the vegetables gently until the potatoes and greens look almost dry and the butter begins to coat and glaze the vegetables. Stir in garam masala, and turn off heat. Check for salt, and serve. This dish may be prepared several hours before you are ready to serve. It also keeps well in the refrigerator for up to 4 days.