Lo those many years ago, I, a transplanted Mid-Westerner, was introduced by a worldly DC resident to Indian food while I was studying Salt Lake City. Prior to college, I didn't know that garlic came unpowdered and that Cool Whip didn't count as cream. Certainly, my hometown did not boast any Indian restaurants, and as we have established, my mother was not exactly a culinary adventurer.
Thus, the discovery of Bombay House led to one of those transformational moments where you cannot believe what a hollow shell your life once was. I walked in, a mere girl uninitiated in the seductions of curry, and walked out, a woman ready to sing its praises. We ordered as many vegetarian dishes as we could eat, along with a couple of different naans and papadum. What I left with is multi-fold:
- A lifelong love of Indian food.
- The belief that a woman could survive on papadums alone.
- A particular affinity for saag aloo.
- A very, very full belly.
Since then, I have introduced the niece to Indian food (oh lord, that was a day of glory), and nowadays, Indian food finds its way onto our stove top (where I also include chopped garlic and eschew Cool Whip). An essential comfort food, saag aloo boasts a palate-pleasing spinach, but the potatoes stabilize this sometimes spicy mix (although there really are no hard and fast rules about the spice mixture, so feel free to play around a little). Saag denotes any leafy-green--spinach, mustard greens, even finely chopped broccoli--although in most American restuarants, you will find only spinach. Further, asafetida, Madhur Jaffrey's optional ingredient (and tricky to find), is a bitter and acrid flavoring--use sparingly, but it will certainly add a kick of an onion-garlic flavors.
In this popular North Indian/Pakistani dish, you could remove the potatoes and add chickpeas, cubed chicken, or peeled and deveined shrimp and still have a wonderful dish (chana saag, saag murgh, or jhinga saag). Throw naan or daal or just plain lentils or rice on the side, and you have a full, sustaining, and delicious dinner. And if you're new to Indian food, I promise, everything will be different after a satisfying bowl of this saag aloo.
Adapted from Madhur Jaffrey Indian Cooking
4 main course servings, 6 side dish servings
1 pound frozen chopped spinach, thawed (We used about 2 pounds fresh spinach, chopped)
1 large onion, peeled and cut crosswise into thin slices
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 teaspoons black mustard seeds
2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
4 medium potatoes, peeled and cut into small cubes
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 pinch ground asafetida (optional)
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons water
2 Cook until the onions are translucent, almost 15 minutes. Be sure to stir often to keep the onions brown.
3. Add the garlic. Stir and fry for 2 minutes. Put in the potatoes, cayenne and asafetida, if using. Stir and fry for a minute. Add the spinach, salt, and 2 tablespoons water. Bring to a boil.
4. Cover tightly, turn heat to very low, and cook for 40 minutes or until the potatoes are tender. Stir a few times during the cooking period and make sure that there is always a little liquid in the frying pan.
5. This dish tastes good alone, over rice, or with lentils on the side.