Even though the rains are slow in leaving us this year, it is well and truly spring. In fact, it seemed like spring was here in early February. The weather was nippy and grey, but it didn’t matter really. Not when there were cherry blossoms softly blooming all over the city.
It is ethereal how these trees blossom in what seems like the depths of winter, a sure signal of the coming spring if there ever was one. Dull, dead branches magically unfurl gentle pink buds. Chancing upon one for the first time will take your breath away and leave you marvelling at this majesty of nature.
The first time I saw this tree I was lucky enough to see an avenue of them, covered in blushing pink blossoms, no leaves in sight. Ahead and beyond, there were hibernating trees, brown and withered with nary a leaf. They stood there, graceful, delicate pink blooms fluttering down with every cold gust of wind, a resplendent symbol of awakening life. I will never forget that scene. Every year since then, I look forward to the cherry blossoms blooming all over the city. A harbinger of seasonal flux as sure as the changing colour of leaves in the fall.
The plum blossoms soon follow. They aren’t as readily found but as just as pretty. We found a whole row of them up in Napa last month. Just as elegant a sight to behold.
The cherry blossom blooms last but a couple of weeks before the dark, velvety red leaves sprout and take over for the rest of the year. They signify change and are celebrated. Those few weeks are enough though, to lift a gloomy city’s grey mood. These annual events provide much needed nourishment to the spirit. Best of all, they are simple and accessible to anybody.
Good food done right can be as much of a nourishment to the soul as to the body. Most often, it will be the simple dishes that provide the most comfort. Shallow on your effort and your time, with a satisfaction quotient inversely proportional to either. Some of my favourite foods are the ones that work this way. A steaming bowl of hot dal, this potato vegetable rolled up in a chapati, or this one over some couscous. This fried rice topped with a gently fried egg. Or this soul-satisfying paneer dish.
This is not a visibly dazzling dish. The aroma, however, will permeate your household and you will never want it to leave. The paneer fluffs up like marshmallow, free of the weight of the heavy sauces it usually stars with and is a delight to eat. There is pure magic in the meeting of smoky, black cardamom and anise-like fennel. The fragrance will warm your heart while their richness in any broth will light a fire in your belly that will radiate warmth to the rest of you. A dish made for a cold day like no other.
This is one of my mom-in-law’s recipes. It is Kashmiri in origin as the cardamom and fennel may indicate. My husband calls it yellow paneer. It’s called paneer in yellow gravy colloquially. After a lengthy debate on what yellow is (two design professionals around anything colour related is an inevitable cause for a back-and-forth), we’ve compromised on calling it Kashmiri paneer. It’s ready in a jiffy. Just a few ingredients go into the mix. His mom tells us to use a regular garam masala and cumin. We modified it slightly over time and use kashmiri garam masala and shahjeera or black cumin. We figured it couldn’t hurt since both spices are Kashmiri. My mom-in-law original instructions were such probably because they were aimed at students who she knew couldn’t be bothered hunting for hard-to-get spices.
Kashmiri garam masala (or ver masala) is a spice blend that is hard to find here. It is a great blend of asafoetida, red chilli powder, cloves, fennel and other such warming spices. I get mine through her from back home and hoard it in the freezer. I tried to find it online and found one source, but I can’t speak for its flavours. I found a recipe on how to make it from Jugalbandi, one of the sites I love and trust, so you could use this to make your own. It’s worth noting that if you don’t have black cumin and Kashmiri garam masala, use cumin and regular garam masala. It turns out great anyway.
Kashmiri Paneer with Spinach
Serves 2 to 3 people.
Paneer – 400 gms/14 oz
Green chillies – 3-4 (Serrano)
Ginger – 1/4” piece, minced
Saunf powder (fennel seed powder) – 2 tbsp
Ver masala/ Kashmiri Garam masala – 1/2 to 3/4 tsp
Black cardamom – 4 to 5 pods
Kala Jeera/ Shahjeera/Black cumin – 2 tsp
Turmeric – 1/2 tsp
Canola or vegetable oil – 2 tbsp
Handful of spinach leaves, cut into thin ribbons.
Optional – Corn starch – 3/4 tsp, made into a slurry with a few tablespoons of cold water
– Cut the paneer into 1/2” cubes. Slit the chillies along their length.
– Heat the oil in a shallow pan on medium high. When it shimmers, temper with the kala jeera
– Add ginger, turmeric, cardamom, ver masala and 1 tbsp. of the saunf powder to the pan. Add the green chillies. Toss mixture with oil.
– Add the paneer and stir the mixture until the paneer is covered in spices and oil. Fry for a few minutes. Add salt to taste.
– Add about a cup and half of water to the pan. Gently mix, cover and bring to a boil. Keep at a boil until the paneer floats up in the gravy, about 10 minutes. It will look a bit fluffier too. Thats a sign that it’s cooked through.
– Turn the heat down to a simmer. Uncover, and sprinkle over the remainder of the saunf powder. Add the spinach and give it a mix. This is the time to add the corn starch, if using.
– Cover and simmer for another five minutes or so, to wilt the spinach. Serve warm with rice.
The gravy (or sauce if you prefer) here is very flavourful, yet unlike our usually thicker gravies, this one is quite broth-like in consistency. The optional cornstarch will help it thicken slightly, useful if you’re trying to eat it with chapattis or roti. I wouldn’t suggest you do though. In a pinch, I’d serve it with pav (bread), which would do a better job sopping up the gravy than rotis. Rice would be the traditional and best accompaniment.
I’ve modified my mom-in-law’s recipe to add the spinach. I had some around that I wanted to use. Turns out this amount of spinach enhanced to the original flavours without overpowering. I’m tempted to add more and see what happens. It wouldn’t taste like this but I imagine the end result would be great all the same. This dish is nourishing, great for cold, grey days. It’s a quick and easy supper on busy week nights. The cardamom, ginger and fennel will fill your home with their heady fragrance. Black cardamom is strong and smoky and intense and it smoothly complements the licorice-like saunf powder. A combination of these spices will truly warm you up from the inside.