I really love cooking with vegetables. Something about the textures, colours, freshness and the sense of earthiness; makes the experience wholly satisfying. Growing up in a country where meat is always considered to be the main meal, it was always surprising to people that in my home in Pakistan, we ate more vegetables than meat. My mother always loved making anything that grew in the garden seasonally, and some how meat never featured a lot, expect on weekends. In fact contrary to what people think, Pakistanis eat more vegetables that meat on a daily basis – lentils, rice, bread and simple ‘sabzis’ are staples, meat is usually rather pricy for many families.

Most homes in Pakistan have someone to help with cleaning and cooking, but in my home, we had a couple who lived in the rooms behind our house, who helped with security while we were on holiday or out of the house. As much as I loved my mother’s cooking, there was something about the lady who lived behind our house and her food – it was always infused with intoxicating log fire smokiness that home cooked meals never had. From the early afternoon, she lit her fire to cook a simple daal, and in the summer, she made saag – In Pakistan we hardly use paneer, so it was always just a simple green vegetable dish. Saag is usually always made during spring and summer – Many get confused between ‘saag’ and ‘palak’ – simply put, saag is any greens, usually , mustard greens or even the tops of radish or any other greens, however, palak is merely spinach.

So as the smoke rose from Rashida’s kitchen (which was directly behind my room), I would invite myself over to sample her cooking. I loved her saag the most – that primal smokiness could never be replicated on a home gas stove. I loved mopping up this vibrant green vegetable dish with charred chappatis she made on that wooden fire. The simplicity of Pakistani vegetable recipes is the first thing that stands out – very few ingredients are used, in fact usually only one spice and red chilli feature and dependant on where you are in the country, vegetables are either slow cooked or flash fried.

I was intrigued by the addition of paneer in Indian saag, and have since adopted this, I find paneer, lightly fried before addition to the cooked saag, adds a meaty substitute, and makes this dish completely satisfying as a main course.

This month, I have spent an eye opening weekend in Copenhagen, where I was attending the Slow Food Nordic Terra Madre – an international gathering of people who support the Slow Food Movement, and the main thing that stuck me was the use of so much organic produce in this city – so from this visit, I have made a conscious effort to eat more seasonally, organic and local – something I have always done , but seeing how much of a way of life this is in Denmark, made me much more aware of the ethical reasons to do so – And as I returned, in my veg box this week, I had some seasonal greens, some panner in my fridge – and thought back to the simplicity of Rashida’s kitchen, using the saag that grew in her garden, casting my mind back to my childhood visits to her kitchen and how eating such uncomplicated greens fills the soul with a sense of pure satisfaction.

My Spring Saag Paneer

So though there is no infused smoke in this dish, it is a quick way to use up seasonal greens and this recipe works with most leafy green vegetables.

½ block paneer, cut into small squared

4 tbsp sunflower oil

½ tsp cumin

1 clove garlic, sliced thinly

400 grams washed and chopped saag (any spring greens)

¼ turmeric

½ tsp red chilli

salt to taste

½ tsp dried methi (fenugreek leaves)

1 tbsp chopped dill

1. Begin by frying off the paneer pieces in a little oil, until all sides are medium brown. Place on kitchen paper and set aside.

2. Heat a wok style pan, add remaining oil (about 3 tablespoons), when hot add the cumin, fry until this splutters, add the garlic and fry until edges are light brown.

3. Add the chopped saag, and stir fry until soft (about 5-6 minutes), stirring constantly. Add the turmeric and red chilli.

4. Turn heat down and then add salt, and dried methi. Cook for another minute.

5. Turn heat off, stir through dill. Serve hot with chappati, rice and a lentil dish.