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Stinging Nettle Saag Paneer Pizza

Food From Fiction, Recipes

It’s the start of something new here on IV!  This is the first of a number (I hope) of short stories/vignettes that I have been writing about a chef, her life and her food.  I’m not sure where these are going, but I’ve been driven to try my hand at fiction for several months now, and this is my first effort.  I hope you like it, and I hope you take the chance to try making this delicious fusion pizza.

Leave a comment if you like!

slices-

One more casserole and she was going to hurl.  Nanna had been gone for three weeks, but Faith had barely made a dent in the cache of tuna noodle, turkey tetrazzini and veggie lasagna, stocked, by well-meaning islanders, in the ancient deep freeze out on the back porch.

She lowered the hatch, turned her back on the chest full of individually portioned dinners, and headed back inside, looking forward to some time in the kitchen.   She’d been gone from the city and La Pergola for almost five months, and it was almost as long since she’d done anything in the kitchen except make coffee in the morning and maybe heat up something canned for lunch and dinner.

An afternoon where she belonged would help to clear her head.

In contrast to the full freezer outside, the pantry had seen better days.  Faith hadn’t bothered to do much shopping since she’d come home to nurse the woman who had raised her.  Instead, seeking comfort as well as fuel, she’d eaten her way through Nanna’s shelves of home preserved stews, soups, vegetables and jams.

‘Homemade is better than Heinz,’ the old woman used to say.  And she was right.

Add to that the fresh loaf of bread that John James dropped off every couple of days and the gallon of milk he brought once a week, and her grief-stricken stomach had been taken care of.  Death deadened her appetite…always had.

But something inside had finally awakened this morning.  Her eyes had opened of their own accord, and for the first time since the service, she hadn’t had to force herself up and out of bed.  All of a sudden, she had a purpose.  She was going to make herself dinner — one that wasn’t frozen in Tupperware or eaten out of a mason jar.

Scanning what was left of the depleted supplies, her eye caught on the sack of flour.  “Pizza,” she declared aloud, and smiled.  It was good to talk to herself about food again.

paneer-pizza

She turned the oven on full, set the bowl of baby-bottom-soft dough to rise on a trivet set in between the stovetop elements, and took a glass of water out to the porch, closing the door behind her.  Nanna would have been indignant at the waste of electricity, but it was too late in the year for a fire in the woodstove, and with just a little help from BC Hydro, the small homestead kitchen would warm up cozily for both cook and yeast. 

She set her glass down on the railing and rubbed her biceps through her sweater.  Kneading, without the benefit of a restaurant kitchen full of equipment, was manual labour, and it had been weeks since she’d done anything physical inside or out. 

The lack of attention showed as she scanned the property, mid-afternoon shadows stretched out like a carpet before the descending sun.  Spring was settling in, the last freeze was done, and there was a winter’s worth of wind and rain debris fanned out across the back three acres.  She would have to get that cleaned up before she went back to Vancouver.

She stiffened at the thought.  Was she ready to think about going back?  She had to — wanted to — eventually, of course.  There was nothing here for her.  Until now, though, she hadn’t been willing to make any plans.  She ignored the daily job postings that Alex sent to her phone, just as she avoided every one of John James’s attempts to bring up the past, or the future for that matter.  Everything but the present moment was strictly off limits.

He was dependable, adoring and cute, in a shaggy, island kind of way.  And there had been that one summer, just before Beth’s accident, when she had done more than just take notice of his suddenly deep voice and ever-broadening shoulders.  But within a month, he had lost his older sister and she her best friend, and, for her at least, things would never be the same. 

Stop!  She was supposed to be cooking, not thinking.  “Toppings,” she murmured, shaking her head and returning to the deep freeze for a bag of frozen grated mozzarella  – old-time islanders kept inexplicably huge quantities of cheese in their freezers –and the bag of frost-bound stinging nettles she’d seen, clearly labelled from last year, beside the peas and carrots.

“Nettles, cheese…what else?  Sauce.” Back in the kitchen, she set the bags and empty glass on the counter, then headed back into the pantry to discover there wasn’t a tomato to be found.  Nanna’s stewed tomatoes were good enough to be eaten cold, straight from the jar, and it seemed Faith had already cleared them out.  Shame she hadn’t been paying attention enough to make an experience of the last jar.  That recipe was gone along with Nanna.

“Pizza without sauce.  Fan-damn-tastic.”  But a cook on a mission never quits, so she shook off her losses and hunted in the dark corners of the shelves to find an old bulb of garlic with a shriveled length of ginger entangled within its mess of green sprouts, a jar of chili flakes, a jug of white vinegar and an unopened package of garam masala that Faith faintly remembered buying on a whim as a teenager. 

Ten year old spices were hardly ideal, and while she knew for a fact that there wasn’t a lot in the fridge, there was a gallon and a half of milk.  Dinner was coming together.

blanched-nettles

She tied the cheesecloth off tightly and left her fresh batch of paneer to drain, then dumped the softened nettles into a clean dish towel and mercilessly wrung out green water until there was no more.

A little chopping and thirty minutes in front of the stove, and she had a nettle saag that Parneet, the wizened old Punjabi dishwasher at La Pergola, would have nodded over enthusiastically.  Her kitchen rhythm was back!

She slid the second pizza into the oven just as the last of the sun slid beyond reach of the kitchen windows.  The first was cooling on the counter, waiting to undergo to the knife, and a bottle of Nanna’s homemade red was open, gasping for breath on the cracked arborite table.

Outside, paws and boots sounded on the steps just before the back door burst open.  “I found Ellie in with the chickens again.  She’s lonely,” John James said, one hand on the door handle and the other firmly gripping the slobbering black lab’s collar.

“Maybe.” Faith answered noncommittally, and turned back to the counter to rock her chef’s knife across the pizza’s diameter three times, the rich aroma of garlic calming her surprise at his sudden appearance.  “She’s also covered in feathers and shit.  Leave her on the porch for now…you’re letting all the heat out!”

“You didn’t even know she was gone, did you?”  John James asked, and reassured the dog with a gentle pat on the head before he slowly pulled the door shut in her hopeful face.

She winced, shook her head guiltily without looking at him.  “I owe you a slice for bringing her home.  Want a glass of Nanna’s hooch to go with it?”

“Pizza?!  Why didn’t you tell me?  I could have fired the oven up a couple of hours early.  You know Monday is a bread night…” he trailed off.  “Wait a sec.  What the hell is that?” he said, and took another step into the small space to peer over her shoulder.

“It’s Nettle Saag Paneer Pizza.  You know, that Indian spinach and cheese dish?”

“No, I don’t,” came his dry, born-and-raised-on-this-rock retort as he reached beyond her to grab two glasses down from the shelf beside the sink.  He stepped to the table to pour the wine, then turned and paused, bottle mid-air, entranced as her apron strings swung back and forth across that ass as she worked.  A content, cat-like smile stretched slowly across his wide, comfortable face as he took a seat and settled in. “But I’m starved, it smells amazing, and I’m hardly gonna turn down anything cooked by my favourite big-time chef, now am I?”

She laid their plates on the table and lifted her glass to tap against his.  Looking into his eyes for the first time in weeks, she exclaimed “Dinner is served.”

Saag-Paneer-Pizza

(Click on the title below for a printable version of the recipe.)

: Nettle Saag Paneer Pizza

Yield:  (2) 10″ Pizzas

 Crust:

  • All-Purpose flour – 3 Cups (750 ml)
  • Sugar – 2 tsp (10 ml)
  • Instant Yeast – 1 tsp (5 ml)
  • Salt – ½ tsp (3 ml)
  • Water, room temp – 1 Cup (250 ml)
  • Olive Oil – 2 Tble, divided (30 ml)

Paneer: (or use 8 oz. of store-bought paneer):

  • Milk – 2 Quarts (2 Litres)
  • Water – ½ Cup (125 ml)
  • White Vinegar – ¼ cup

Nettle Saag:

  • Garlic, halved – 4 cloves
  • Ginger, peeled & chopped – 1″ piece
  • Serrano or Jalapeno Pepper, stemmed and chopped – 1 (see Notes)
  • Water – ½ Cup (125 ml)
  • Stinging Nettles, fresh – 6 cups, divided (1.5 L) (see Notes)
  • Butter – 2 Tble (30 ml)
  • Vegetable Oil – 2 Tble (30 ml)
  • Kosher salt – to taste
  • Whipping Cream – ⅓ Cup (80 ml)
  • Garam Masala – ½ tsp (3 ml)
  • Cayenne Pepper – ¼ tsp (2 ml)

Suggested Additional Toppings:

  • Mozzarella Cheese
  • Onion
  • Red Pepper
  • Black Olives
  • Anchovies
  1. For the crust: Combine the flour, sugar, yeast and salt in a bowl. Add the water and 1 tablespoon of olive oil to the bowl and mix well with your hand until a rough ball forms. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured counter and knead until smooth, 5-8 minutes. Lightly oil a bowl and roll the dough ball in the bowl to coat. Cover with plastic wrap and/or a clean towel and rise in warm place until more than doubled, about 2 hours.
  2. For the Paneer: Line a colander with 3 layers of cheesecloth or a clean cotton/linen tea towel and set in a sink.
  3. Heat the milk and water to boiling in a large, nonreactive saucepan over medium heat, stirring occasionally with a wooden or silicone spoon to prevent scorching. As the milk nears the boiling point, stop stirring and watch it carefully. The milk will start to foam and rise in the pot. Once it has risen 3 inches, remove from the heat and gently swirl in the vinegar without stirring. Allow the mixture to sit for 10 minutes while the milk solids separate.
  4. Gently pour the milk mixture into the colander, and allow to drain for 15 minutes. Gather up the cloth, gently wring to remove more water, then tie the opposite corners together tightly to make a sack, hang it from the sink faucet and allow it to drain thoroughly, about 90 minutes. Unwrap cheese, cover loosely and refrigerate until ready to use.
  5. For the Saag: Combine the garlic, ginger, pepper, water and ½ the nettles in a blender and purée into a smooth paste. Coarsely chop the remaining cup of nettles.
  6. Heat the butter and oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat until melted and sizzling. Add the puree, and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the remaining nettles, a pinch of salt, cover and reduce the heat to medium-low. Cook, stirring often, until the nettles are very soft, about 15 minutes.
  7. Stir in cream, garam masala, and cayenne. Cover and cook until the liquid thickens, another 15 minutes. Remove from the heat.
  8. Assemble & Bake the Pizzas: Move the oven rack to the bottom position and place a pizza stone or baking sheet on the rack. Preheat the oven to 500˚ for 1 hour.
  9. Divide the dough in half. Transfer 1 dough ball to a floured to a 15”x 15” piece of parchment paper. Working from the centre, gently stretch and flatten the dough to a 10” diameter with fingertips, leaving edges thicker than middle. Cover dough with a tea towel and rest for 15 minutes. Repeat with other dough ball.
  10. Brush edges with remaining olive oil. Spread nettle saag generously over the dough rounds rounds and cover with a thin layer of mozzarella. Sprinkle on additional toppings if desired, and finish by crumbling the paneer over the top. Transfer pizza (on paper) to stone/baking sheet and bake one at a time until golden brown, 10–14 minutes. Remove pizza with a spatula, rest for 10 minutes, then slice and serve.

 Notes:

  • Leave the pith and seeds in the serrano/jalapeno if you like spicy food. For a milder saag, remove the pith and seeds before adding to the blender.  If you don’t have a fresh pepper, substitute ¼-½ tsp dried chili flakes.
  • Saag, which means greens in Hindi, can be made with mustard greens, young kale, spinach, or anything else you can dream up. Make the saag (and only the saag) vegan by using coconut milk instead of whipping cream.
  • Replace the fresh nettles (or other greens) with 2 firmly packed cups of well-wrung, pre-blanched nettles.
  • To achieve a Nanna level of frugalness, save the whey you drain from the paneer. Use it to water your plants, in place of the milk in a batch of homemade bread, or in your morning smoothie.
  • I didn’t press this paneer, as it was destined to be crumbled on top of my za. If you prefer a cheese you can slice in cubes, press the cloth-wrapped cheese under a moderate weight for 30 minutes once the hanging stage is complete.
  • Store leftover paneer in the fridge, wrapped tightly in plastic, for up to 3 days.

Preparation time: 2 hour(s)

Cooking time: 30 minute(s)

Number of servings (yield): 4 to 6

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