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Vegetarian on the Inside ‘Getting all of the familial tension rooted in long-past unspoken slights without any of the home cooking...

February 22, 2011

Some time towards the end of my freshman year in college my good friend Vikram took me to his family’s big fancy house on the other side of LA for the day. We played tennis and swam and threw rocks into the canyon at what we believed was Jennifer Lopez’s house in the hopes of eliciting a response from her security team. I met his sister and parents and it was a very nice outing.
Vik later told me that his Mom had said the next day: “So your friend Alix, she is jado.” Now, this was back when I played varsity water polo so I cut a rather imposing figure (seriously, children would back away) so it makes sense that she would say something to the effect of “that Alix is a very muscular girl.” That word in Hindi is “jadi.” “Jado” though, is the masculine form and has a slightly different meaning. Basically she said I was a fat little boy.
Now I didn’t particularly care about this but my friend thought it was hilarious as well as a wonderful way to needle his mom so he reminded her regularly of how she had called me a fat little boy. Then one day he told her that he had told me what she had said. And then he told me that he’d told her. Yes, he likes to stir up drama with women (we’ve discussed this extensively in relation to his ability to remain in relationships with women that say things like “So I’m actually married to a pilot”). Which has made my regular visits to his family over the last decade terribly entertaining. Vik’s mom falls all over herself to tell me how I look like I exercise a lot and I must be eating very healthy and so on. I know that she knows that I know that she said I was a fat little boy. And clearly that’s the subtext of all our encounters. I get all the familial tension rooted in long-past unspoken slights without any of the home cooking.
Which is all to say, that I’ve decided to teach myself how to cook Indian food. This project comes mostly as a result of Starkville’s wonderful new Asian food store, which has a dizzying array of noodles, sauces, things made out of bean curd as well as the spices and paneer cheese required for the recipe below. And actually, since I’m already interrupting my usual blathering with a loosely related promotion, I must mention the new Facebook page “StarkVegans and StarkVegetarians for Better Restaurant Choices” which advocates for more fresh, veggie-based dishes in area eateries. It is not a matter of eating or not eating meat so much as creating a community that supports more healthy dining options around town. Join!
Let’s get back to homemade Indian food. It’s healthy and wonderfully flavorful but it’s also rather labor and ingredient intensive. I don’t usually have the energy to generate more than one dish at a time so I tend to toss in extra ingredients to bulk it up. The recipe that follows is for the traditional saag paneer (spinach with coriander and cheese) but rounded out so that one bowl is an entire meal. For jadis and jados alike.

Saag Paneer on Steroids
OR Spinach for Jadis

Based on the recipe by Neelam Batra

Serves 8-10
Time: 1 hour 10 minutes, nearly all active

Ingredients
~2.5 lb new potatoes (those small red ones)
3 bunches of spinach, stems removed
3 Tablespoons vegetable oil
1 onion, chopped
3 cloves of garlic, minced
2 Tablespoons fresh ginger, minced
2 jalapeno peppers, minced with seeds included to taste
3 tomatoes, cored and chopped
1 cup cilantro, chopped
2 Tablespoons ground coriander
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon garam masala
3/4 cup plain yogurt
4 oz. paneer cheese, cut into 1/2-inch dice
salt

First, I would recommend doing all your stem-removal and chopping. It can be done as you go along but it’s a little stressful if you’re the only one in the kitchen. If you have a helper in charge of stirring then feel free to just… flow. Next, cover the potatoes with salted water and boil until tender, about 25 minutes. Let them cool and then cut into quarters.
While the potatoes are cooking, throw about a quarter of the spinach into a large pan with high sides (I use my 12-inch cast iron skillet and wouldn’t recommend anything smaller) along with1/4 cup or so of water. Heat over medium heat until wilted, about 3 minutes, then squeeze dry (I do this by pressing it against the bottom of a colander with a big spoon). Do this for the rest of the spinach in probably three more batches and then puree it all. Check on the potatoes. They’re probably done at this point.
Wipe the skillet dry. Heat the vegetable oil and add the onion. Cook over medium heat until brown, about 8 minutes. Then add the minced garlic, ginger, and jalapenos. I include about half of the jalapeno seeds if I want the dish to be mild but flavorful. If you want real heat, leave in all the seeds (as always, I urge you to be very careful to not touch, say, your eyes after handling fresh jalapenos). Cook, stirring, for about 3 minutes. Lower the heat to medium-lo and add the chopped tomatoes and the cilantro. Cook until most of the liquid is evaporated, about 7 minutes. Stir in the coriander, cumin, paprika, and garam masala and let it simmer for 2 minutes. Add the yogurt, the potatoes, 1/2 teaspoon of salt and cover for 5 minutes. Stir in the spinach puree and diced paneer and let the mixture simmer, covered for 10 minutes. Taste for salt and serve!

Alix Hui is an Assistant Professor of History at Mississippi State University. She can be contacted at alixhui@gmail.com.

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