A classic reimagined.
Nothing is more Punjabi or Desi than saag and and makki di roti. In the Lehail household, saag is a favourite and like so many, I can attest that my mom’s is the best.
My parents, both foodies, have fond memories of saag and associate eating it with love for their India, their villages, and their families. If you mention the dish, they both dreamily think of at least a dozen, if not more, childhood memories that include their own parents, siblings, joyous interactions.
Growing up, my parents took pride in growing rows upon rows of mustard greens and spinach. The making of saag was a dramatic production in at our humble abode in Kamloops. Slow-cooked and hand stirred, my mom would slave over the stove for hours carefully watching the chopped greens simmer and bubble. Classic aromatics: onions, garlic, ginger, and chillies would steadily pan fry. Time would provide the magic of a smooth green creaminess that would give you energy to work hard (something my parents avidly promote).
What I find interesting is how my mom’s version of the classic sarson saag has adapted to the ingredients readily available at their local supermarkets to include broccoli, spinach, bok choy, sui choy, and even broccolini.
That’s the beauty of my mom’s recipes, they are fluid and adaptable, lending her to use her kitchen acumen to be creative. The result? Her daughter, me, creating interpretations of dishes that are authentic without being traditional. In many of my recipes I attempt to demystify flavours and reconstruct them in ways that are more familiar. Almost a shift in the way South Asian food is both served and perceived.
This Upscaled Saag and Makki Di Roti dish captures the diverse sights, smells, and tastes of a dish that is authentic to Punjab and Vaisaikhi. It is not a stretch of the imagination that the somewhat static saag and makki di roti feels alive, vibrant, and even chic. A Spiced Spinach Puree acts as a foundation for the fancy pan-fried polenta, which is then stacked with sherry vinegar infused mushrooms, pickled masala beets, and a homemade whipped feta butter.
The crisp polenta acts as a wonderful vehicle for the spiced spinach and the addictively flavourful mushrooms. The creamy feta butter adds depth and creaminess, while the pickled beets add complexity and acid. Overall, this dish is a winning combination of flavours and colours. Highly recommended for dinner parties where guests will be impressed by the presentation.
Spiced Spinach Puree
2 packages of frozen, chopped spinach leaves
1 cup of chicken or vegetable stock
2 tablespoons of canola oil
1/2 cup of chopped onion
2 garlic cloves
1 green chilli
1/2 inch piece of fresh ginger
1 teaspoon garam masala
1 teaspoon cumin ground
1 teaspoon cayenne
1 teaspoon sea salt
Place frozen spinach and water into a pot and let it cook down for about 20 minutes. Meanwhile, in your blender add in onion, garlic, chilli, and ginger. Add a bit of water and then puree. In a large frying pan,and then add in pureed aromatics. Sauté for about 10 minutes on low heat. Add in spices and continue cooking. When spinach is cooked add to blender along with aromatics and spices and blend until smooth. Add more stock to thin out if necessary.
Pan Fried Polenta
6 cups chicken stock
2 cups coarse polenta (not quick cooking)
1 cup half and half
4 cloves chopped garlic
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon ground cumin
salt and pepper to taste
olive oil for frying
Bring stock to a boil and whisk in polenta slowly so that no lumps form. Continue to whisk until it thickens to an oatmeal consistency. Reduce heat to simmer, cover, and cook until no longer crunchy, about 20 minutes. Whisk in half and half and garlic, cumin, black pepper and season with salt to taste. Spread into a sheet pan in an inch thick layer and freeze for about an hour. Cut into individually sized circles or squares and pan fry in olive oil over medium high heat until golden brown on each side and heated through.
Sautéed Sherry Mushrooms
Olive oil for the pan
1-1/2-pounds Crimini or Button mushrooms, washed, dried and quartered
4 tablespoons sherry vinegar
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Coat a large sauté pan with olive oil, and place it over high heat. Add the the mushrooms and cook until they have shrunk quite a bit, and are becoming very brown, stirring from time to time. This should take about 10 minutes. Reduce the heat to low and deglaze the pan with the sherry vinegar. Return the heat to high and use a wooden spatula with a flat edge to loosen any mushrooms bits from the bottom of the pan. Cook until the sherry has evaporated completely and then season generously to taste with salt and pepper.
Pickled Masala Beets
2 medium red beets
4 tablespoons cider vinegar
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground garam masala
2 tablespoons cup olive oil
Place beets in a large pot, and cover with cold water by 2 inches. Bring to a boil over high heat; add 2 teaspoons salt. Reduce heat slightly to maintain a rolling boil. Cook until tender, about 30 minutes. Drain, and let cool slightly. Trim stem ends, then peel beets using a paring knife or a vegetable peeler. Cut beets crosswise into 1/4-inch-thick slices. Whisk together vinegar, 1 1/4 teaspoons salt, and the pepper in a small bowl. Add oil in a slow, steady stream, whisking until emulsified. Add beets to the dressing and mix.
Homemade Feta Cheese Butter
250 ml of whipping cream
3 tablespoons of feta cheese
Pour the cream into the food processor. Turn on and leave to beat away; the objective is to over-beat it.
The cream should be thick and coming together into one big ball. When ready, it will look like butter and the sound coming from the food processor will change. Put it into a sieve over the sink, then use your hands to shape it and allow excess water to drain away. Put on some greaseproof paper, add in himalayan pink salt (to taste) and mix in feta cheese, and place in freezer until ready to use.
Jessie Lehail is the author of Indian Influence, a blog that shares food stories, recipes, and photography. Reflecting a love for meshing global flavours and South Asian aesthetics, Jessie explores culture and identity through food. Find more food stories at indianinfluence.ca.