Saag Story

I like to put up the repeatable recipes I come up with more often than not, and the great majority of them are, but I don’t mind putting up the odd ye-gods-let-this-serve-as-a-lesson-to-you-all post, especially if there are humorous moments or flashes of learning that happen along the way.

I’ve been trying to get this saag recipe (Indian-style greens) together lately. Last week I got some Russian and dinosaur kale and resolved to try again.

I usually chop the greens. This time, to get the texture closer to the disintegrated style of many of the greens dishes I’ve eaten, I got the bright idea to shred the greens in the food processor. It would get them closer to what I suppose you could describe as a ropa vieja texture (Spanish for “old clothes” – usually a long-simmered shredded meat dish), a texture with which I figured they’d be cut smaller and cook faster, plus they’d pile together more effectively than chopped greens, which tend, no matter how long they’re cooked, to clump.

So I fired up the food processor with the shredder disc in it, and jammed great handfuls of washed greens into the feed chute. As I pushed down on the plunger, well into the third batch, I realized I smelled a familiar smell.

A green…bitter…hot…damp smell. I looked up in that idle way you do as if you’re scanning the inside of your brain for something that you know is up there.

A chlorophyll smell. A smell of friction and plant matter. Shredded green stuff…

The smell of lawn clippings.

I looked down at the food processor and pressed the off button. I did that little combination lock maneuver you do on the Cuisinart in order to get it open, but I already knew what I had done.

I had effectively mowed my dinner.

Damn it.

Now, I already had the spice masala together and the aromatics cooked, so I just went ahead and kept on shredding, figuring the dish might somehow come together as it cooked, but I remembered warily my only interaction with fenugreek greens (which did actually smell and then taste exactly like lawn clippings to me) and warned Chimp, when he came in the kitchen, that we might be eating out of the fridge that night.

“What’s going on?” he asked, looking over my shoulder at the battered vegetation in the work bowl.

“I thought I’d shred it…and maybe it wasn’t such a good idea.”

“No?”

“Well, we’ll see – I’ll apply a good deal of butter and salt to it to see if that helps.”

Sometimes, most of the time, an increasing amount of the time, perhaps based on the amount of experience you have in the kitchen, you can pull those near-failures out and get something edible, if not repeatable, out of it.

When I got the ingredients into the pot and first set it on to simmer, I tasted it to see how the seasonings were going to work.

The flavorings were totally overwhelmed by the greens. Bleargh. Lawn clippings. I sighed and turned to open the fridge, weighing my options.

But 40 minutes or so later, when the greens had had a chance to leach out their bitterness and assimilate into themselves the flavors of the other components, it ended up working. The good news is that this was edible, by the time I got done with it, adding potatoes to it to cut the flavor of the very strong greens a bit, and I did get significant knowledge out of it, which you get out of near-failures perhaps more than you do out of a success.

Here’s what I learned:

Most importantly: Though I love strong greens, a recipe like this needs a balance of milder and stronger greens to be at its best.
Additionally: Shredding the greens does result in a good texture.
Incidentally confirmed: Cooking the onions until they’re well-browned is the right technique – you don’t want any of that half-cooked onion flavor that works in a soup.

So we applied these to some of our usual chickpea pancakes, topped with a little yogurt, with dal on the side, and everything was fine.

Chimp, slurping another one of my “failed” Scharffenberger frozen chocolate pop experiments, urges me not to give up. He has faith in my abilities, thank goodness, lawn clippings for dinner notwithstanding.

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