Spring is upon us! Temperatures are climbing steadily – we are already at 27 degrees C. But a nip still lingers at night and in the mornings. Therefore, the mustard family gets to reign for a few more weeks. I have mentioned mustard fields and I have talked about Punjab…but I haven’t yet talked about their favorite winter greens preparation.
About Saag – sarson da saag (Punjabi) or mustard greens. When I first started reading food blogs a couple of years back, I was impressed by the familiarity of the Western world (the US-based blogs, in any case) with ‘saag’ which is the Punjabi word for greens in general. Just like Kashmiris refer to one specific kind of green when we say haak, saag too refers to sarson or mustard greens, unless specified otherwise – palak ka saag (spinach greens), bathuey ka saag, so on and so forth. Punjab has never heard of saag-paneer. The saag-paneer combination intrigued me till I discovered it was the American avatar of good old palak-paneer, which, I am told (by none other than our own desikudi, Musical) is not that traditional in rural Punjab.
What is beloved to rural Punjab in winter months is sarson da saag, gently simmered over the low heat provided by cow chips burning in an angithi or chullah. I know some neighbours who dig out their angithis (coal or wood burning portable stoves) every year just so they can cook mustard greens like the saag of their childhood! It does not find much favour with my oogra-vaadi😉 , allergic-to-brassica-tastes family, but how can I not cook this most delicious of greens, after which the whole family of gloriously oogra (the Marathi word for strong-tasting, in a disagreeable sense) greens and vegetables, chock-full of antioxidants, is named!
Indian mustard greens have stems with tough skins, which, along with the leaves, must be chopped very fine, and steamed till tender. Milder tasting spinach is added to the mustard greens to reduce bitterness. My mother would sometimes add radish greens, bits of radish, even turnips. They all mellow the pungency of mustard.
Once tender, it is mashed, the implement of choice here being the madaani or ravi (similar to this), and simmered some more after adding makki ka atta (corn flour) till it becomes thick and creamy. Just before serving, it is mixed with a tadka of ginger, onions, and tomatoes, and slit green chillies in ghee. Served with makki ki roti, it embodies the sunny winters of the Northern Plains.
Locally, corn flour is available only in the winter months. Rotis made with the flour of freshly harvested yellow corn are delicious. A dollop of unsalted white butter is mandatory on the roti; a half dollop doesn’t hurt in the saag as well. There’s a time for a low-fat diet, and winter is not that.
750 gms (1 ½ lb) mature mustard greens
250 gms (½ lb) spinach greens
1/3 C makki ka atta* (not cornstarch) or cornmeal
2 T unsalted butter or ghee
2 T grated ginger
1 C chopped onion
1 C chopped tomatoes
slit green chillies
additional butter or ghee for serving (optional but recommended)
Wash the greens, including the tougher stems, and chop very fine. Pressure cook with a little water till tender. Alternately, cook covered over gentle heat till tender. Mash with a madaani or a wooden roller, or use a handheld blender, taking care to not make a fine puree. Put it back on the stove to simmer. Stir in corn flour and cook till creamy.
Traditionally, saag is prepared in large quantities to be consumed over a few days. The tadka is added only to the portion that is being served. I find it stays well for a couple of days even if you add the tadka to the entire quantity.
For preparing the tadka, heat butter or ghee in a pan or karahi. Add ginger, followed by chopped onions, and cook till the onions are transparent. Add the tomatoes and cook, stirring constantly over medium heat, till the tomatoes are mushy and the fat has risen to the surface. Add slit green chillies and stir. Add the cooked greens and salt, and simmer for 10-15 minutes. Serve hot with makki ki roti. Corn tortillas should be a reasonably good substitute for the corn rotis.
Maaki ki Roti
3 C makki ka atta (or fine cornmeal)
grated mooli (radish), 1 C or so (optional)
very hot water
Take all the ingredients in a bowl and add hot water. Mix with a wooden spoon. Keep covered till it is cool enough to be kneaded by hand. Knead for a few minutes. Hot water helps obtain a softer dough that doesn’t fray at the edges when rolled. Divide into 8-10 portions. Roll out, one at a time, into 1/8 inch thick circles 5-6 inch diameter and . Pressed between the palms to perfection by expert cooks, I roll mine between two layers of plastic (this slit Ziplock freezer-bag has been serving me well for over 10 years!]. Cook on medium heat on a tava or cast iron griddle, with or without a brushing of oil, ghee, or butter. I rarely use ghee for frying since it makes too much smoke; peanut oil is my preferred fat here.
Serve hot, topped with butter, with sarson ka saag. The fresh and sweet taste of corn makes these rotis special. I savour them on their own, but they are great with saag.
Corn is in the winter air:
Jugalbandi’s Broccoli-Corn Dhokla
Anna Parabrahma’s healthy Corn Bhel
Evolving Tastes’ Polenta Kheer
A Mingling of Tastes with Pear Cornmeal Upside-Down Cake
The Singing Chef’s colourful Cornmeal Vegetable Salad
* makki ka atta is the flour of Indian yellow corn. It is ground much finer than the commonly found cornmeal (in the US). Use the finest cornmeal you can find for this roti. Mix corn flour/meal with equal part whole wheat atta if you like smooth-edged thinner rotis that puff up.