ForageFest had a couple of potluck meals where you were encouraged to bring dishes including foraged ingredients. I had in mind to cook or bake something with the copious loquats all over Gainesville right now but waited too long. Just before we left I went out in the yard searching for inspiration and saw the copious Spanish needle everywhere. I picked a big bowlful of Spanish needle tips in my yard and the empty lot across the street in less than 20 minutes. I made a big crockpot of this dish for the potluck and it was gone within minutes.
“Saag” is Hindi for a combination of greens, pureed together with onions and spices. Saag is a brilliant cooking method for wild greens which otherwise might be too bitter, strong, or fibrous to eat by themselves. Adding fresh, unmelting cheese to saag isn’t traditional but it sure is delicious. This rich dish is full of possibilities- use a combination of wild greens and cultivated greens, or a combination of cultivated greens when your garden is winding down or getting ramped up.
The wild greens here are Spanish needle- Bidens alba- which is a pernicious native “weed” that is also a primary food for pollinators since it flowers profusely eight months out of the year. The young tips are quite tasty before the plants flower in early spring and if you keep a small patch pinched back constantly you can have a source of tender nutritious greens throughout the summer. They are so common that you probably have them in your yard but make sure to collect them in a place you know is safe from spraying, and always wash wild green thoroughly.
If I had one tip about Indian cooking, I would say don’t fear browning those onions. I read in an Indian cookbook many years ago that the authentic taste of Indian food cannot be reached without slightly burned onions. Deeply browning the onions in a sauce where the onions give the body adds a really necessary depth of flavor.
Wild Saag Paneer
1 bunch curly kale
1 bag of fresh spinach
1 bunch of spanish needle greens
12 oz queso fresco or paneer
1 large red onion, sliced or chopped
1 tbl butter
2 large garlic cloves, chopped
2″ fresh ginger, chopped
1 tbl ground cumin
1 tsp red chile flakes
1/2 tsp turmeric
scant 1/4 tsp asafoetida
salt & pepper
1-2 tbl cream, raw if you can get it
The combination of greens should total about 1 1/2 pounds. Make sure to include at least half non-brassicas like amaranth, lambsquarters, spinach, watercress, or Spanish needles. Wash the greens thoroughly, like this. Put the dripping wet kale in a large pot with a lid and turn on to medium. Add 1/4 c of water. As soon as you see steam collecting on the lid, turn the heat down to medium-low. Steam the kale until the stems are tender. Then add the other greens and steam until wilted and tender but still green. Remove from heat and set aside.
Heat the butter in a large frying pan over medium heat until it stops foaming. Add the onions and fry until the onions start to brown. Add the ginger and garlic and continue to cook, stirring regularly, until the onions are well browned and the garlic and ginger are golden. Add the cumin through asafoetida and continue to cook until the entire mixture is sizzling and smells cooked.
Scrape the onion-spice mixture into a large blender. Blend for a few seconds- enough to get it all chopped up. Add half the greens and puree the mixture until it is thoroughly blended. You want it really smooth. Pour the blended mixture back into the frying pan and set over medium-low heat. Then puree the remainder of the greens until smooth, adding water 1 tbl at a time if necessary. The puree should be thick like stew, not thin like soup. Add the remainder of the pureed greens to the frying pan and bring to a simmer. Stir and let everything simmer together for a few minutes. Cut the queso fresco/paneer into cubes and add to the simmering greens puree. Let everything simmer together, stirring regularly, until the cheese is hot all the way through- about 10 minutes. Taste and add salt and pepper to taste. The queso fresco I use is quite salty so I do not add salt until after the cheese has cooked in the sauce for a bit. Add a tablespoon of cream just before serving.
Serve this with rice or flatbread, or if you’re grain-free it’s really great over a baked sweet potato.