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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

This dish makes a case for eating your vegetables


A recipe for saag shrimp from a beloved Montreal restaurant convinced Yewande Komolafe that leafy greens can be just as good as croissants.

By Yewande Komolafe


The first bite I took was the naan — blistered and lightly brushed with softened ghee. It was airy, doughy, crispy all at once. I dragged a piece through a bowl of saag shrimp, took a bite and was stunned. It hit all the notes I’d always wanted from a vegetable-forward dish, a perfect interplay of ingredients. The brininess of tender shrimp heightened fresh sautéed spinach, ginger, garlic and chile.


I was at Le Taj in downtown Montreal with my husband, Mark, who has visited this elegant restaurant nearly every summer since 1988. Copper bowls full of korma, xacuti, bhindi, steamed rice and that wondrous saag shrimp crowded our table. Small bowls of pickles and chutneys were perched along the table’s edge.


The food memories lingered, as they do after all of my travels. I tend to wrap myself in a cocoon of nostalgia: “Remember how warm and buttery the kouign-amann was that morning?” “The perfect strawberries we had at Jean-Talon?” Back in Brooklyn, I recounted delicious details of our trip to Mark: “Remember the saag shrimp that night at Le Taj?” Vegetables rarely hold a candle to pastries in my mind’s eye. But this saag lodged itself in my consciousness, right alongside the buttery, sugary pastries I’m so fond of.


When I returned to Le Taj in May, the saag shrimp surpassed my recollection. The cuisine at Le Taj is primarily North Indian, as is the dish itself. (The proprietor, Vinod Kapoor, grew up in Mussoorie, in the northern state of Uttarakhand.) Albeit a reluctant restaurateur, he’s a near-nightly presence in the dining room, moving through it alongside Fayzul Islam and Gourmet Dorje, veteran waiters who have worked at the restaurant for more than 25 years. (They have been there as long as Mark can remember.) And over time, Kapoor has turned Le Taj into an institution.


A folder, tightly wrapped in brightly colored silk and studded with gems, the nightly dessert menu stands out, presented to diners at the end of the meal. Its boldness fits in perfectly among the sepia-toned reliefs that line the restaurant’s walls, a nod to Kapoor’s past as an art gallery owner and jewelry designer.


“I’m not a chef,” Kapoor said. “Before opening the restaurant, the only connection I had to restaurants was that I ate in one every night.”


He credited the saag shrimp, one of his favorite dishes on the menu, to Pourin Singh, the chef whom he described as “a master of his craft.”


Singh walked me through the recipe, beginning with a splash of a neutral oil in a pan set over a medium flame. Onions and cumin seeds are gently sautéed before pinches of ground spices, a ladle of a curry sauce from a base made that morning, several large shrimp, blanched spinach and a splash of cream are added. It’s straightforward enough, but Singh’s secret, I believe, is the freshness of his ingredients: the spices, the spinach, the shrimp and even the chopped tomato garnish.


Saag, thankfully, comes in so many ingenious variations. Leafy greens, such as spinach, amaranth, mustard greens or fenugreek, make up the bulk. A heady blend of spices and aromatics enhances the flavor, while different proteins can be added to enhance the texture and flavor of the completed dish.


But saag shrimp convinced me that if ever I have to choose between a vegetable and a butter-laden pastry, I could respond without missing a beat, “I would rather have the saag.”



Saag shrimp


Recipe from Pourin Singh

Adapted by Yewande Komolafe


Saag comes in so many ingenious variations. Leafy greens, such as spinach, amaranth, mustard greens or fenugreek, make up the bulk. A heady blend of spices and aromatics provide the foundation, and different proteins can be added to enhance texture and flavor. This version, adapted from chef Pourin Singh’s recipe at Le Taj in Montreal, is made with plump shrimp, which add a complementary brininess. The secret to Singh’s version is the freshness of his ingredients: the spices, the spinach, the shrimp and even the chopped tomato garnish. Serve while still warm, alongside steamed fluffy basmati rice and fresh naan, topped with green chile chutney, tamarind chutney or fresh kachumbari for a lovely pop of acid and heat. — Yewande Komolafe


Yield: 4 servings

Total time: 45 minutes



Ingredients:



For the spice blend:


1 teaspoon ground turmeric

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon ground coriander

1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne

1/4 teaspoon garlic powder

1/4 teaspoon onion powder



For the shrimp:


1 pound peeled, deveined large shrimp, tails off

Salt

3 tablespoons ghee or neutral oil, such as grapeseed or safflower

1 teaspoon whole cumin seeds

1 large yellow onion, minced

1 (1-inch) piece fresh ginger, scrubbed and grated

3 garlic cloves, grated

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1 medium fresh tomato, chopped

1/2 cup fresh cilantro leaves and stems, chopped

1 pound fresh baby spinach, roughly chopped using a sharp knife or by pulsing in a food processor

1/2 cup heavy cream or unsweetened coconut cream

Steamed rice, naan, green chile chutney, tamarind chutney and fresh kachumbari, or a combination, for serving.



Preparation:


1. Make the spice blend: In a small bowl, combine turmeric, ginger, cumin, coriander, cayenne, garlic powder and onion powder.

2. Toss the shrimp with 2 teaspoons of the spice blend and a light sprinkle of salt. Set aside.

3. Heat a large shallow skillet over medium-high. Add the ghee and cumin seeds, and toast until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the onion, cook until softened and translucent, stirring frequently, 5 minutes.

4. Add the remaining spice blend, stir and toast until fragrant, 30 seconds. Add the ginger, garlic and tomato paste. Stir and cook until the tomato paste deepens in color, about 1 minute. Reserve 1 tablespoon of the chopped tomato for garnish. Add the remaining chopped tomato, about half of the chopped cilantro and 1/2 cup water. Increase the heat to high and bring the sauce to a simmer. Cook the sauce, stirring until it thickens and reduces (about three-fourths of the original volume), 3 to 5 minutes. Season with salt.

5. Add the shrimp to the skillet all at once and stir to coat with the sauce. Add the spinach in two batches, wilting the first batch before adding the second, and season with salt. Cook on high heat, stirring occasionally, until spinach is softened, shrimp is cooked through and most of the liquid has evaporated, about 4 to 5 minutes. Stir in the heavy cream and adjust the seasoning to taste with more salt, if necessary.

6. Remove from heat and garnish with the reserved chopped tomatoes and the cilantro. Serve over steamed rice and warm, pillowy naan. Top the saag with green chile chutney, tamarind chutney or fresh kachumbari for a lovely pop of acid and heat.


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