Naanakopita: Delicious Pockets of Cross-Cultural Blasphemy
September 23, 2011
The Whole Foods by my girlfriend’s apartment used to sell Sukhi’s Naanwiches, or at least, the kind she liked – the kind with spinach and potato and tofu. She’d keep them in her fridge, and hurl one into the oven for dinner if the mood struck her. I had one, once, and liked it. I developed this copycat recipe back in February 2011; we made a bunch of homemade naanwiches and brought them to a Super Bowl party, where, despite the preponderance of popcorn, dips, and peanut M&Ms, they disappeared off the platter at Warp 9.
And then I forgot about it. Completely. Until Carolyn’s Whole Foods stopped selling the spinach Naanwiches. “Remember when you made those?” she said.
“Sort of,” I said.
“I think that would make a great blog post,” she said, coyly. I know what you were after, Girlfriend. You mercenary. She was in it for the naanwiches, America!
So, using the naan recipe I’ve previously detailed on this site, and the following recipe for saag paneer, I recreated the magic. Except I did it a little differently; instead of just making a folded piece of dough like I had previously, enfolding the filling in a sort of folded pita configuration, this time I crimped the dough into little hand pies, so that they most resembled empanadas, or, more accurately, spanakopita – Greek spinach pies. (Or Lebanese fatayer. Or calzones!)
My cultural depredations lead me from India to the Levant to the Greek Isles* to, as you shall shortly see, Mexico. I shall never rest. I shall never stop bastardizing the cuisines of nations – not until I have trod on every page of Larousse Gastronomique.
I’d call this a samosa, except it isn’t, really. It’s too large, and it’s baked, not fried. I’m sure there aren’t exactly hard lines on nomenclature, but it feels like I’d be calling a knackwurst a cocktail wiener. But yet, it’s not a spanakopita, either; it’s not made with phyllo dough, and it’s also a little bit too large. If anything, it’s like a pasty, but it’s made with the wrong sort of dough. It’s its own classification. Naanwich or Naanakopita will do, although I prefer the second, for its quality of sheer phonemic bewilderment.
Now, palak paneer is a classic Indian dish, which I shall further insult by describing as being “essentially creamed spinach with fried cubes of fresh Indian cheese in it.” It is very easy to make your own paneer. I was going to advocate that you do it for this recipe. In fact, I nearly did it myself, figuring there wasn’t any place within walking distance of me that sold paneer cheese.
But guess what? There is. Paneer is a fresh farmer’s cheese – it’s firm, kinda squeaky, and somewhat bland. It doesn’t melt like other cheeses would– it just gets nice and brown and crisp when you cook it in a non-stick skillet. It is, in fact, identical to Mexican panela. Identical. There is nothing in the production of those two cheeses that would set them apart – you heat some milk; you add some lemon juice, you drain it, you press it, you salt it. The end. Cheese.
Now, if you’re an American, and you live near a large city, there is undoubtedly a sizeable Mexican population in your community, and the grocery stores in your neighborhood undoubtedly stock Mexican goods. You’re going to want to march right up to the deli counter and order several inches of cheese – don’t get it in slices, get it in a big ol’ chunk. This stuff is delicious.
So. If you can get paneer, excellent! Good for you; it’s not so terribly difficult to come by in the first place. And you could always make your own. But I like the firmness of store-bought stuff. It’s made with more patience, weight, and industry than I could ever muster.
* Which reminds me of a story my classmate Molly told, once. She had pledged a college sorority, and her father, upon hearing this, exclaimed, “Excellent! I’m so pleased you are Greek, now; did they bid you drink from the brackish waters of the Aegean Sea?” Molly’s father is, evidently, awesome.
A tasty pocket of spinach and cheese!
You will need:
- One full recipe of naan dough
- a 10-ounce bag of fresh spinach, or, failing that, a thawed and drained package of frozen spinach
- 1 cup of paneer/panela, cubed
- 1/4 cup buttermilk (feel free to use 1/4 cup of milk with a teaspoon of vinegar – just let it sit for ten minutes)
- 1/4 cup yogurt
- 1 onion
- 4 cloves of garlic
- 2 teaspoons of ginger
- 2-3 tsp curry powder
- 1 tsp coriander
- salt, to taste
1. First, make the dough, following the instructions in my entry. Set the oven to 400 degrees F.
2. Fill the sink with water, if you’re using fresh spinach, and soak the spinach in the basin, shaking it around to get rid of any sand or dirt.
3. Dice the onion, mince the ginger, and mince the garlic, too. Set it aside. Cut the paneer or panela into smallish, 1/2-inch cubes.
4. In a medium-sized nonstick pan, heat a few teaspoons of oil and begin cooking the cheese, not doing much to them. Make sure they don’t stick (use a rubber or silicone spatula), but other than that, let them cook at medium heat, turning every four minutes or so, until they’re brown on a few sides. Reserve the cooked pieces of cheese on a plate or in a bowl. Keep the pan on the stove.
5. Meanwhile, in a large skillet or pot, heat a little oil, and wilt the spinach in it – use a tongs to squeeze all the water out of it as it cooks down, and plop it into a bowl. It should take about two to four minutes to wilt all the spinach. I grow weary of having to blanch spinach in a big pot of water, only to have to squeeze all the water out of it endlessly. I think this way is a little easier.
6. Give the person next to you a high five. You’re making naanwiches!
7. In the pan you used to cook the cheese, which should still have some oil in it, add the aromatics (the onion, the garlic, and the ginger), and cook them, with a touch of salt, the curry powder, the coriander, and an optional pinch of hot red pepper flakes, until the onion is soft and yellow, about 5 minutes. I believe it was around this time that I said, “Maybe this is too much onion.” Carolyn almost slapped me. She was right. It cooks down. And there’s no much thing as too much onion.
8. When the onions are soft, add the spinach in – stir until the spinach is evenly distributed , then add the yogurt and the buttermilk. Stir, taste for seasonings, and cook until the mixture is still a little wet, but not drippy. We don’t want too much buttermilk leakage in the naanakopita. Stir in the cubes of paneer and kill the heat.
You could totally stop here, too, if you wanted, and just serve the saag paneer as is. We had a lot of trouble not eating it all out of the pan. Just sayin’.
9. Line a baking sheet with tin foil, and spray it with cooking spray. Roll out your dough into six-inch rounds – just like you would for the naan recipe, but thinner – you might be able to get eight to ten of these, depending on how thin you go. Place these rounds on the greased tin foil on the baking sheet.
10. Plop a 1/4 to a 1/2 cup of saag paneer into the middle of them.
11. Fold them in half, and crimp up the edges. There’s no need to seal them super well, because if they leak, they won’t leak so terribly much – the filling shouldn’t be all that wet.
12. Bake the naanakopita at 400 degrees F for 25 to 30 minutes, depending on how crispy and brown you want them to be. Let them rest for at least 10 minutes before serving, because they will be insanely hot on the inside.
These reheat spendidly. but they also freeze, uncooked, exceptionally well: cook them, straight out of the freezer, for 25 minutes at 425 degrees F – spray them with a little cooking spray first, though. But pop ‘ em in, hot ‘em up, take ‘em out. And that’s sort of the entire point of these – while they certainly make an excellent sit-down meal, I’ve designed these with long-term frozen storage in mind, so you can say, “Oh, dang. It’s 5:45, and I want to eat something at 7, but I don’t want to make anything. And I don’t want to get takeout.” This is me, reaching out across the ether, preventing you from tearing the lid on another loathsome Lean Cuisine.
This is the first entry in The Clone Platter, a new feature in which I will attempt to clone an existing commercial product or piece of restaurant food, or generate a home-cooked equivalent. If you have any suggestions, please leave them in the comments! As a warning, I probably won’t take on anything that requires a deep-fryer – so I probably won’t take on the suggestion of “David, clone McDonald’s french fries!”, because, first of all, fried, and second of all, there’s an immense supply chain with a very specialized cultivar of potato (Oh sure, their website says they use regular old Russet Burbanks, but I’m convinced they’re the ones who buy up all the fancy Kennebec potatoes). So there. Lots of caveats, but request away. If the product in question is available in my area, I’ll buy it, dissect it, and eat it, and then try to recreate it! Otherwise, you’ll need to describe the hell out of it, and maybe take a photo.