Spinach is often a victim of overzealous camouflage—hidden beneath a cheesy, creamy sauce or overwhelmed by tastes and textures that make the supposed star of the dish seem like an afterthought.
For a different take—one in which the spinach can remain the focus—we considered variations of India’s saag, a dish of simmered mustard greens, spinach or other leafy vegetables. The greens are typically seasoned with spices that have been tempered, a technique that flavors without overshadowing.
Though the technique is simple—spices are briefly cooked in hot oil or butter—tempering can have an outsize impact on an overall recipe. Heat releases the fat-soluble flavor compounds in the seasonings, amplifying and dispersing them. It’s the first step in many Indian dishes (and sometimes the last), in part because it spreads flavors evenly.
At Milk Street, we often temper spices in oil to add depth. But we learned there’s a science to this technique, also known as blooming: The spice’s form matters, as does the timing of when it’s added to the skillet.
In Indian cooking, both whole and ground seasonings are tempered. Whole seasonings, such as cumin and coriander seeds, need more time in the hot oil, as their hulls slow the process and protect the volatile flavor compounds. Ground spices must be tempered for less time as they can quickly burn and become bitter. So when using a combination of spices, it’s important to add them in stages—whole first, followed by ground.
As we considered recipes for saag, we were particularly inspired by dakhini saag, a regional take from Hyderabad, in Southern India, that’s studded with tomatoes and seasoned with fresh dill. In Madhur Jaffrey’s recipe for dakhini saag in “Vegetarian India,” she tempers cumin seeds, turmeric and Kashmiri chili powder to flavor blanched greens. We loved the bright combination of spices but wanted to keep all the cooking in one pan.
So we started by melting butter in a Dutch oven. Cumin seeds were the first spice to go into the pan. But we held back the turmeric and cayenne (which is easier to find than Kashmiri), instead adding onion next. Once it browned, we added the ground seasonings. Because the onion had lowered the temperature of the skillet, it helped prevent the turmeric and cayenne from burning.
Next, we added the spinach—trimmed and sliced, which made it easier to eat—along with halves of grape tomatoes, which provided acidity and texture. As we tossed the spinach in the pot, coating it in our buttery, oniony base, it absorbed the flavors we had infused into the dish at the start. The greens took just minutes to become tender. We cooked them briefly—just four minutes—to retain a coarse texture.
The final step, stirring in 1/2 cup of fresh dill off heat, served as another reminder that order matters: Exposing it to only gentle residual heat preserved its bright flavor and color.