I could and often do, eat this delicious spiced spinach-y, meal in a bowl at least once a week. I wrote my first variation on this recipe back in 2008, and it hasn’t changed much in its essence since then. It’s all about the slightly resisting, meaty texture of the chickpeas giving a fabulous contrast to the creamy smooth sauce with its nuggets of melty, chewy cheese and strands of silky spinach, backed up by gently spiced heat.
I wasn’t sure what to call this: it could be a soup, a stew, or, at a pinch, a curry (but that seems lazy, and I’ve always tried to avoid just slapping curry onto a dish with spices when Indian food is so, so much more than just a catch all term).
But of course this dish has its roots in the many dishes of saag paneer (spinach with Indian cheese), and chana masala (spiced dry chickpeas) I have eaten, and the hundreds of Indian recipes I have read and cooked.
What is definitely not Indian in this dish is my mild preference for halloumi, rather than paneer, because its salty tang and chewy texture work so well against the other ingredients but truthfully both work well. (Don’t substitute any other cheese however, as you need one that doesn’t melt.)
In these times this recipe is an excellent store cupboard recipe, requiring just an onion, tinned chickpeas, and full-fat coconut milk, and frozen spinach, along with the kind of spices most of us have kicking about in a kitchen cupboard. You could even swap in some of that jar of curry paste from the back of fridge if you need to use that up instead.
Of course you can cook your chickpeas yourself in advance, and use fresh spinach, but the point of this dish is that it’s quick to the table. I particularly like frozen spinach because it’s such a perfect freezer ingredient: Fresh spinach has such a short shelflife, and takes up so much room in the fridge. And it’s expensive, relatively.
Note: I specify leaf spinach as this gives the stew its silken texture. Please don’t use chopped spinach as it is very fine and will disappear into the sauce. It would better to use another kind of green leaf instead: this time of year – spring – you could use Swiss chard very effectively (to prep: strip off the leaves, and chop the stems), or even finely sliced white cabbage.
This recipe makes approximately 4-6 servings depending on greed. (If you are serving it with rice it will stretch; I like a big bowl of stew with a piece of crispy pitta or flatbread for dipping.
vegetable oil for frying – I use rapeseed
1 onion – chopped or sliced, as you prefer
2 cloves garlic – chopped fine
2 tablespoons curry paste of your choice
1 heaped tsp turmeric
1 heaped tsp cumin
1 heaped tsp ground coriander
1 flat tsp chilli powder or chilli flakes (if you like your food mild I’d go for half a tsp)
salt & black pepper
1 tin full fat coconut milk (please avoid the reduced fat versions. This dish needs the creaminess.)
1 tin chickpeas (400gm), to drained weight of 220gms
1 packet either paneer or halloumi, approx 200-220gms, chopped into small cubes
500gms frozen LEAF spinach.
Generous squeeze lemon juice to finish.
Optional: yogurt and chopped coriander to top when serving.
Heat 2 tablespoons of oil, and then sweat (cook slowly over a low-medium heat) the chopped or sliced onion in oil for about ten-fifteen minutes until translucent & golden. (This will seem like a lot of oil, but you will want it to cook the spice in the next step.)
Once the onions are beautifully soft, add the chopped garlic and fry gently for a minute, before adding in either the curry paste or the ground spices, along with a generous grind of black pepper. Fry with the onions and garlic for a minute or so until you can smell the spices.
Pour in the can of coconut milk, then add 800ml of vegetable stock. (I simply fill the empty tin twice with boiling water and add 3 tsps of Marigold Vegetable Bouillon Powder.)
Add the drained chickpeas, and simmer for five minutes. I like to lightly crush a few of the chickpeas for a slightly thicker sauce. If you prefer it soupy simply leave them all whole.
Whilst the stew is simmering, take a frying pan & fry the small cubes of cheese in a a little vegetable oil until lightly browned. Remove from the pan, onto a piece of kitchen paper to drain.
Into the pan of coconut milk and chickpeas add the frozen spinach and cook until defrosted and fully heated through (about five minutes). Then add the pre-fried paneer, and a generous squeeze of lemon juice. Taste the sauce and add salt to taste. (I don’t add salt until this point because I want all the flavours to have come together before I adjust the seasoning.)
Serve with warmed naan bread, brushed with melted butter. It’s even nicer if eaten next day. (Add more water or stock as it thickens overnight.)