Monday, May 03, 2010

Chicken Saag with Dal

Here is another recipe inspired by my favorite Indian grocery store. Chicken saag is probably my favorite thing to order at Indian restaurants. It consists of boneless chicken (or paneer, the firm white cheese, if you want a vegetarian curry) pieces stewed in extravagantly spiced, silky-smooth spinach puree. The really good versions taste complex and are quite addictive.

As with so many Indian dishes, it seems impossible for an American home cook to turn out a version that could compare to what you'll get at a good restaurant. After years of being intimidated by Indian cooking, I'm happy to finally say that it doesn't mystify me the way it used to. I guess I would chalk it up to a greater familiarity with (not to mention access to) Indian ingredients, as well as having spent enough hours in the kitchen doing any kind of cooking, that tackling uncharted territory is a lot less daunting than it used to be. It may be that enough practice can give you the confidence to pull off just about anything.

So I made chicken saag for the very first time. And just for the heck of it, I created a one-dish meal by adding urad dal, or black matpe beans that have been skinned and split to reveal a creamy, white interior. I've never seen a saag dish like this, but I wanted to use these new-to-me legumes, and the results were great! In the picture, I garnished it with yogurt, chutney and lime. I love sampling the endless varieties of chutneys and pickles, but I really love the extra layers of flavor they bring out in a dish. I definitely recommend picking some up to punch up Indian meals. And if you suddenly think some spicy Indian pickled veggies will be amazing on a fish taco, go for it!

Chicken Saag with Dal
I suspect that yellow split peas or plain brown lentils could be substituted for the urad dal. Both will give you a slightly different taste and texture and may take more or less time to cook. The other ingredients are easy to find with the exception of asafoetida, a pungent spice that lends an onion-like flavor in cooking. If you don't have any, omit it. I like the bitter, peppery flavor of mustard greens very much here, but you can use all spinach (2 lb. total) if you like.

Serves 6 to 8

1 lb bag frozen chopped spinach, partially defrosted
1 lb chopped mustard green, thick stems discarded
2 jalapeno chiles, seeded and chopped
1 lb urad dal, rinsed
5 cups water
1 cinnamon stick
1 1/4 lb boneless, skinless chicken breast, cut in bite-sized pieces
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 Tbs ghee
1 large onion, finely chopped
2-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
1 tsp cumin seeds
5 cloves garlic, chopped
2 tsp ground turmeric
2 tsp ground coriander
1/4 tsp asafoetida
1 Tbs garam masala
Juice of 1/2 to 1 whole lemon
Plain, thick yogurt (such as Fage Greek yogurt), for serving
Chutney (mango, tomato, etc.) and/or Indian pickle, for serving
Lemon wedges, for serving
Warm naan or pita bread, for serving (optional)

Add about 1/2 inch of water to a large Dutch oven and place over medium-high heat. Add the mustard greens, cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, until wilted and very tender, about 8 to 12 minutes. A few minutes before greens are done, add the spinach and jalapenos; stir to combine, breaking up any frozen bits. Keep an eye on the water and add more if needed. Transfer greens to a food processor or blender, discarding any water remaining in the pot, and puree. Set aside.

Wash out the Dutch oven and add the dal, water and cinnamon stick. Bring to a simmer over high heat. Reduce heat to medium low and simmer, uncovered, 15 minutes. Add the chicken, season with salt (about 1 1/2 teaspoons at this point) and pepper, and simmer 10 minutes more, or until chicken is cooked through and dal is tender. The lentils should absorb most of the water during cooking to reach a thick, stew-like consistency; if you don’t think there is enough liquid to submerge the chicken, add more in 1/2-cup increments.

Meanwhile, heat the ghee in a medium skillet on medium low. Add the onion, season with salt and pepper, and cook until slightly soft, about 5 minutes. Add the ginger and cumin and cook until onion is browned and cumin is fragrant, about 5 more minutes. Add the garlic, turmeric, coriander and asafoetida; cook, stirring constantly, until very fragrant, about 2 minutes; remove from heat.

Add greens to dal and mix well. Reduce heat to low and cook, stirring occasionally for 5 minutes so flavors can blend. Remove cinnamon stick and add the onion mixture and the garam masala. Continue cooking five minutes more. Add the juice of 1/2 lemon. Taste for seasoning and adjust as necessary with more salt, spices or lemon. Serve with yogurt, chutney, pickle, lemon wedges and naan, if desired.


tasteofbeirut said...

i can't say that I have had this dish, however I have had it with paneer and love it! I am so glad you are showing us the way with these intricate but immensely enjoyable Indian dishes.

Food Lover said...

I have read a number of posts on this blog, but this is by far my favourite! Mmmmmm! Tasty! Have you thought about opening your own food outlet? If you got all those recipes together, you'd make a bomb! and deservedly so.... great food, great ideas, beautifully presented and a real treat to read! Thankyou so much for the inspiration. I'm now off to try out some of those recipes!

Georgie Fear RD said...

Hi! Ive been reading some of your posts, and am really enjoying the ones delving into Indian cooking. I've been dabbling in it myself, and I know what you mean - its can be very intimidating to start. But all the spices really allow for amazingly interesting, flavorful meals.

Thanks for sharing, I love spinach so I'm bookmarking this one to try.

Julie said...

Georgie: I'm a big fan of your blog! I'm endlessly fascinated by Indian cooking, and after years of being mystified by it, I finally "get" it. I hope you like's not terribly traditional as far as I know, but it IS hearty and good.

Unique said...

I've never had chicken saag at a restaurant so I would have to enjoy this based on how it tastes, not comparing it