May 20, 2012
My little sister got married this weekend.
Of course, Varsha isn’t technically my sister—technically, she’s not related to me at all. But technically is not how the community I grew up in works. Technically isn’t even part of the vocabulary.
I grew up surrounded by an incredibly tight network of “uncles” and “aunties” who, like my parents, emigrated from India in the late sixties and early seventies and somehow wound up in Memphis, Tennessee. Though they did not know each other beforehand, are not even from the same region of India, do not necessarily speak each other’s native languages or share family background, are from different castes and, in some cases, different religions, our parents raised us together, a makeshift village.
As a child, my “real” family—all in India—was distant, strange, unfamiliar; I have only visited there three times in my entire life. To me, the people whom I felt connected to, unconditionally loved by, and stuck with, for better or worse, were the people my parents had chosen, the people whose houses I could ride my bike to, in whose upstairs rooms I played “Taboo” and watched, regrettably, The Shining at a very tender age. They call me “Nishtie” and have known me since birth.
Part of what it means to be a family is to be a witness to the particular way someone grew up, someone who shares that particular little pocket of time, place, and circumstance, who knows the inside jokes, shares face time in vacation photos, and remembers the accidents, the sadness, the difficulty, the tradition, and the joy. So I say that these people, though we are not bound by one drop of blood or any kind of relatedness that would hold up in court, are my family.
This weekend, I was joyfully present as Varsha, whom I’ve known since she was born, married her love of nine years, Devon. I wrapped myself up in four different saris, caught up with folks I hadn’t seen in years, ate plates of fabulous Indian food, cried, cracked up as the adorable bride and groom surprised us all with a choreographed dance to Taylor Swift’s “Our Song,” and had the pleasure of co-emceeing the reception with the groom’s brother.
Indian weddings, in case you’ve never been, are vibrantly colorful, richly tradition-filled, elaborate, generous affairs, with events that stretch over the course of several days. This one was no exception, but for me it was also so much more—an opportunity to feel and express my gratitude at being part of this incredible community.
To have memories of someone at age three or four, calling you “Nidda” and saying “shwimp” instead of “shrimp,” to have built elaborate slumber party tents with her, watched her fight off awful childhood migraines but win chess tournaments anyway, then notice suddenly that she’s grow into an incredibly beautiful, kind, and hard-working woman, and one night to get up and dance in celebration on the night of her wedding to a wonderful guy—there really aren’t any words to describe how that feels.
So, this one is for Varshie, with congratulations and so much joy. I love you, little sister.
SAAG PANEER RECIPE
My mom made the saag paneer for Varsha & Devon’s engagement party, and Varsha knew immediately that my mom had been the one who made it. This is her recipe, with a few adjustments from me.
I usually make a huge batch, so I cut the measurements down here to be more manageable. That said, this recipe doubles (or triples!) easily and freezes very well. You can also make the paneer ahead of time and store it separately in the fridge or freezer.
Surprised to see broccoli used here? It adds creaminess and body to the dish without adding fat, in the form of even more butter or cream, which is often what makes restaurant saag taste so good. When reducing or increasing this recipe, just keep this ratio in mind—3:1:1 :: spinach : broccoli : greens
You can certainly use fresh spinach for the saag, but I find it more cost-efficient and less time-consuming to use good quality frozen instead.
for the saag:
1 stick butter
1 large onion, roughly chopped
¼ cup minced garlic
¼ cup minced fresh ginger
3 packages frozen spinach
1 packages frozen chopped broccoli
1 package frozen mustard/turnip greens, swiss chard, or kale*
2 T corn flour
1 ½ T ground jeera (cumin)
1 ½ T ground dhania (coriander)
½ -1 tsp. lal mirch (cayenne)
1 T salt
1 cup paneer, cubed
Thaw the frozen greens in the fridge for a couple of hours, or in the kitchen sink for just an hour if rushed. When ready, in a heavy bottomed pot, melt the butter and cook the onion, garlic, & ginger until translucent. Add the thawed greens and a bit of water, if necessary, cover and cook for a half-hour or until the greens are soft, stirring occasionally.
Remove the greens from the heat and stir in the corn flour. Blend everything in the pot using a stick blender, or let the mixture cool and then combine in a conventional blender or food processor. Return the greens to the pot and add the spices, stirring well. (At this point, you can also add a bit more butter, if you’re feeling decadent).
Cook for another 25-30 minutes, or until the saag pulls away from the sides of the pot. Taste and check for salt, then stir in the paneer and let it warm up before serving.
*I have a hard time finding frozen greens, so I usually buy 2 bunches of fresh greens, wash them, and wilt them separately.
for the paneer:
1 gallon whole milk
lemon or lime juice (amount needed varies, be prepared with at least ¼ cup)
Line a colander with cheesecloth and place it in the sink. In a large pot, bring the milk to a boil over medium heat. Watch the milk because it will seem to do nothing for almost fifteen minutes, and then all of a sudden it will be close to boiling over. When it gets to that point, remove the pot of milk from the heat.
Begin adding the citrus juice a few tablespoons at a time, stirring vigorously to distribute. Continue to patiently add the juice until you see curds forming. Once the curds have formed, pour the entire contents of the pot through the cheesecloth-lined colander. (Note: you can save the liquid—the whey—and use it in place of water in baked goods).
Using gloves (the curds will be very hot!), lift the cheesecloth out onto a sturdy cutting board. Place the cutting board back into the sink, then weigh it down using the pot you just cooked the milk in, filling it with water, which will also help with cleaning later.
For crumbled cheese, let the paneer sit at least an hour. For sturdier paneer, transfer the pressed paneer to the fridge overnight, making sure it’s well covered with cheesecloth or damp paper towels.
Cube the paneer and brown it, either in a pan with oil or on a foil-lined, greased baking sheet under a low broiler (turn the pieces halfway through browning, which will only take about 10 minutes total). Once browned, paneer will keep in the fridge for a week or in the freezer for a few months.