Sunday, March 6, 2011

Wild Indian: Stinging Nettle Paneer & Porcini Chana Masala

Sometimes a kitchen experiment yields better results than you ever imagined, and you feel like Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein. Happily, my recent creation neither ran amok through the neighborhood nor incited a pitchfork mob—though it did get a wild applause from my dinner guests.

I'm talking about my Stinging Nettle Paneer. The dreaded stinging nettle, as most of us have known since childhood, is a monstrous weed. It's invasive and hard to eradicate, and woe to those who try to drive it from civilization, because the nasty barbs pack a painful wallop. On the other hand, with a little love and understanding, the nettle becomes an ideal food. It's one of the first greens of spring (late winter for many of us) and loaded with nutrients.

Most people I know who like Indian cuisine have a special place in their hearts for Saag Paneer, the creamy spinach curry with fried cheese. After all, spinach is good for us and even a decadent presentation feels somehow virtuous. Try this recipe with stinging nettles and you'll simultaneously welcome the weed and never feel quite the same about Saag Paneer again.

Substitute stinging nettles for spinach? Really? Believe me, you'll wonder whether this dish was originally invented with the belligerent weed in mind. The nettles leave the spinach in the dust. They're so bright in flavor, with a wild sweetness that goes perfectly with the Indian spices. My dinner guests were blown away and so was I. This dish goes to the top of the list of stinging nettle recipes.

Stinging Nettle Paneer

3/4 lb paneer, cut into cubes
1 large onion
3-4 cloves garlic
1 4-inch thumb of ginger, peeled
2 tbsp vegetable oil, plus extra for frying paneer
3-4 cardamom pods, crushed
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/8 tsp ground cloves
1-2 plum tomatoes, diced
20 oz boiled nettles, drained
1/2 tsp turmeric
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
1 heaping tsp garam masala
1 tsp black pepper
1-2 tsp salt
1 cup, more or less, heavy cream or yogurt or a mix
cilantro for garnish

1. In a food processor, pulverize the onion, garlic, and ginger into paste.

2. Over medium heat, saute paste in oil for a few minutes in heavy-bottomed saucepan. Add cumin seeds, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, and tomatoes, and cook for a minute or two, stirring occasionally.

3. Squeeze out excess water in boiled nettles. You'll have a clump about the size of a baseball. Chop up by hand or with a food processor; I like mine well chopped, but not overly pulverized.

4. Add nettles to pan, along with tumeric, cumin, coriander, garam masala, black pepper, and salt. Stir together well.

5. Meanwhile fry paneer cubes in a little oil until lightly browned, then add to nettle mixture just before serving.

6. Finish over low heat with heavy cream or yogurt to desired consistency. Garnish with fresh cilantro.


I've been working through my store of frozen wild mushrooms all winter. With spring porcini season around the corner, it seemed like a good time to use up the freezer supply and make room for a new batch. Mushrooms work well in any number of Indian curries; I especially like their addition to this Chana Masala, where they provide an added textural dimension, not to mention mushroomy flavor.

For this dish I turned to Michael Natkin's recipe over at Herbivoracious for the spice regime. Toasting your spices in oil is a traditional way to extract full flavor, but you want to be extra careful not to burn the spices. The toasted black mustard seeds, in particular, are a must.

Porcini Chana Masala

1/2 pound porcini mushrooms (or cremini), roughly chopped
1 can (14 oz) chickpeas, drained
1 medium onion
3-4 cloves garlic
1 4-inch thumb fresh ginger, peeled
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 teaspoons black mustard seeds
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
1 can (14 oz) diced tomatoes, drained
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 tsp ground cloves
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp brown sugar (optional)
1 cup (or more) water, stock, cream
cilantro for garnish

1. With a food processor make a paste with onion, garlic, and ginger.

2. Heat oil over medium heat in a large skillet. Add black mustard, fennel, cumin, and coriander seeds, and toast until mustard seeds start to pop (about 30 seconds or so). Note: do not overcook spices in oil or the curry will be bitter. Immediately add paste and tomatoes. Cook until liquid evaporates and mixture begins to brown.

3. In a separate pan, saute mushrooms in a little oil or butter until lightly browned. Add to skillet along with chickpeas. (I used previously sauteed and frozen porcini, and added directly after thawing.)

4. Add turmeric, cinnamon, cloves, cayenne pepper, lemon juice, salt, and a cup or so of water if necessary.

5. Cook uncovered over medium-low heat for 15 minutes. Adjust seasonings.

6. I finished my curry with a tablespoon of brown sugar and a half can (about a cup) of coconut milk, for a slightly sweeter curry. Garnish with fresh cilantro.

Cooking Indian at home can seem like a recipe for failure. All those spices! If you're new to Indian cuisine, the first step is to visit your local spice store. You'll want to have the basics: turmeric, cumin seeds, cardamom pods, ground coriander, garam masala, and so on. The amount of spices and seasonings will be overwhelming at first, but a little practice and before long you'll be making your own adjustments to once-obscure seeming spices in a given recipe based on personal preference.


Kristen said...

After having just tried your Nettle Gnocchi recipe for the first time last time, I'm very excited to pick more nettle and try this Paneer recipe. Kudos on the gnocchi! Made a hell of a mess of the kitchen counter but what a dinner!

Watch out nettles. I'm coming to getcha!

Mike said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mike said...

I love cooking wild food, love cooking curry, and love nettles, so will definitely try this. Just need to figure out a safe way to pick nettles with my 2 year old...

Mari said...

Nettles are at least a month off in Michigan (we're still snow-covered). Very jealous!

Lo said...

You've totally reeled me in this time -- nettles & saag paneer. I'm sure I'd be in heaven. Now, I just need to find that elusive source for local nettles... know of anywhere to get them in WI??

Heather said...

Of course this works - nettles and cheese are an umami explosion.

Kristen said...

Just finished this dish and was not disappointed. I used full fat goat milk yogurt in place of cream, and added a bit more fresh ginger and got a fantastic tangy taste out of it. Wonderful combination!

brittney said...

Where do you buy paneer? I will definitely try this. I've made your nettle gnocchi and nettle pesto and loved them. Thanks for the continued inspiration!

MPB said...

Looks like you left out the secret ingredient to Indian deliciousness...Ghee!

Thanks LC for the fun post!

Langdon Cook said...

Kristen - I hear you on the mess. Every time I make gnocchi I'm just praying they hold together. Enjoy the Paneer!

Mike - Kids learn quick...

Mari - Something to look forward to. Along with morels.

Lo - I've gotta think they're all over boggy parts of WI. We find them in moist mixed woodlands here, if that helps.

Heather - Just add seaweed...

Kristen - I used yogurt with my leftovers to good effect, too.

Brittney - I bought paneer at an Indian grocery in Seattle's Pike Place Market, but there are plenty of recipes for making it yourself.

MPG - I know, no ghee, what was I thinking?

Jennifer on Mayne Island said...

Wonderful recipes! I made spanakopita last night with stinging nettles harvested from my wee property in the gulf islands. This, plus your nettle saag recipe reminded me of a dinner I had years ago while travelling in France - a crepe filled with blue cheese and cumin. So now I'm going to try another "nettle-kopita" using a bit of blue cheese and cumin (perhaps mellowed with some local chevre added to the mix). When it comes to forager cuisine, creative ideas abound!

calhoun said...

Just a couple of questions about the Porcini Chana Masala recipe, which by the way sounds fantastic...

Is it ok to substitute yellow mustard seeds (for black), or are they completely different flavors?

In step #4, the recipe calls to add "hot pepper," but I don't see that in the list of ingredients.


Langdon Cook said...

Jennifer - How did the Nettle-kopita turn out? Love that idea.

Calhoun - The black mustard seeds are very distinctive, with a smoky flavor. Try to get some if you can. As for the hot pepper, that's an error. I made the recipe twice, the first time with fresh chili pepper, the second time without. I didn't notice much difference, but if you like your food hot, by all means add a diced chili pepper or two! (Gonna fix that typo now...)

Jennifer on Mayne said...

Hi Langdon,
The cumin-blue cheese nettlekopita was exquisite! I used some locally made blue cheese, which melted nicely with the carmelized onions and nettles. Yum! Now I want to try making gomae out of shocked stinging nettles...looking for a good sesame sauce.

Geordie Romer said...

Glad to see this Saag + Paneer recipe. I was thinking something like this might be tasty as I see a huge crop of new nettles in our yard by the creek.