Why It Works
- Marinating the tofu with lemon juice and miso gives it a tart, umami-heavy flavor that mimics the flavor of fresh paneer cheese.
- Using a mix of spinach and heartier, more flavorful greens, like arugula or mustard greens, packs in extra flavor.
- Cauliflower, simmered in nut milk and puréed into a creamy sauce, adds ample body and richness to the spinach, without help from any dairy.
The wonderful thing about saag paneer—the Indian staple of greens and fresh cheese in a creamy sauce—is that, in my experience, it's almost universally loved by vegetarians and meat-eaters alike. But what if we wanted to make a completely dairy-free version, so that vegetarians, meat-eaters, and vegans can all enjoy a meal together? This recipe recruits the power of cauliflower, a variety of greens, and marinated tofu to do just that.
- 12 ounces (350g) extra-firm tofu
- 1 tablespoon (15g) yellow miso paste
- 3 tablespoons (45ml) lemon juice, divided, plus 1 tablespoon (5g) zest, from 2 to 3 lemons
- 3 tablespoons (45ml) vegetable oil, divided
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 6 ounces almond, soy, rice, or cashew milk (2/3 cup; 170ml)
- 6 ounces cauliflower florets or peeled sunchokes (170g; about 1/3 of a small head of cauliflower)
- 4 medium cloves garlic (about 20g), finely minced
- 1 (1-inch) knob ginger (about 20g), peeled and finely minced
- 1 to 4 green or red Thai chilies (depending on your heat preference), stemmed and finely minced
- 1 teaspoon ground coriander seed
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin seed
- 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
- 1 cardamom pod, smashed
- 8 ounces (225g) mature spinach, curly if available (see note)
- 8 ounces (225g) arugula or mustard greens, tough mustard green stems removed and discarded (see note)
For the Tofu "Paneer": Adjust oven rack to center position and preheat oven to 375°F (190°C). Press tofu firmly between paper towels to remove excess moisture. Cut into 1 1/2–inch cubes and set aside. In a medium bowl, whisk together miso paste, 2 tablespoons (30ml) lemon juice, lemon zest, and 1 tablespoon (15ml) oil. Season generously with salt and pepper. Add tofu and toss to coat. Spread tofu evenly over a foil-lined rimmed baking sheet. Place in oven and bake until golden brown, about 20 minutes. Sauce may darken a little against the foil; this is fine. Set tofu aside.
Meanwhile, for the Cauliflower Purée: Combine nut milk and cauliflower in a small saucepan. Season with salt and bring to a simmer. Cook until cauliflower is tender, about 10 minutes. Purée mixture using a hand blender or countertop blender. Set aside.
For the Spinach: Heat remaining 2 tablespoons (30ml) vegetable oil in a large saucepan or saucier over medium heat until shimmering. Add garlic, ginger, and chilies and cook, stirring, until fragrant and lightly browned, about 1 minute. Add coriander, cumin, turmeric, and cardamom pod and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add spinach and arugula or mustard greens one handful at a time, stirring and adding more as the greens wilt (see note).
Reduce heat to low and cook, stirring occasionally, until greens are fully wilted, about 5 minutes. Stir in cauliflower purée and continue to cook until greens are very tender, about 5 minutes longer. Stir in tofu cubes and heat through. Stir in remaining lemon juice, season with salt, adjust consistency with a little water if necessary, and serve.
Mature curly spinach works best for this dish, as it has a more robust flavor and more tender texture when braised. Flat-leaf spinach will do. Avoid baby spinach, which turns mushy when cooked. If you can't find mature fresh spinach, you can also use frozen spinach: Defrost and drain it well, then add it all at once in step 3, rather than a handful at a time. If you prefer, you can use 100% spinach instead of a combination of spinach and arugula or mustard greens.