Spinach, Potato, and Chickpea Pakoras

Recipe and photo by Tami Ganeles Weiser Yield:  60 pakoras
Prep Time:  35 minutes Chilling Time:  1 hour Cook Time:  45 minutes

Spinach, Potato, and Chickpea Pakoras

This little fritter is part of my fantasy cocktail party for Mindy Kaling, writer and actor from The Office, author of two best-selling memoirs and creator, showrunner, executive producer and star of TV’s “The Mindy Project.” It’s inspired by Mindy’s Indian heritage and it defies my attempts to give it a simple name. In much of Indian cuisine, “palak” refers to spinach only, whereas the more famous “saag” (as in “saag paneer”) can be any winter green, so as a food-anthropology geek, I simply can’t call it a saag fritter or saag pakora.

This recipe is made with spinach, so palak is it, but if you love mustard or collard greens, use them (cooked until they are so soft they surrender) and feel free to rename it “saag.” But palak pakora doesn’t quite do the job, either, as there are potatoes in these fritters and they need to be in the name, too. Throughout Indian cuisine, “aloo” refers to potatoes. Many of my fritters want to lean toward latkes, with potatoes creeping in to give my fritters body. Potatoes are also very common in virtually every regional Indian cuisine.

Then again, as a daughter of a New Orleans native, with half of my family still very much in the South, I love adding cornmeal to fritters too, or even some self-rising flour. It gives the patties bulk. In this recipe, however, I’ve opted for chickpea flour. It is the defining element in these patties. I use chickpea flour in many a fried food—as a coating or as a binder—because it creates a sweeter, earthier, heftier bite. In creating this recipe the chickpea flour package was positively calling my name because, like potatoes, chickpea flour is common in most regional Indian cuisines. It used to be hard to find. I frequented Kalustyan's, the spice purveyor, for years to find chickpea flour and I still do, but it is now (thankfully!) widely available beyond specialty markets. It is quite easy to find at health food stores, well-stocked groceries and of course online, where you can find anything anyway. But I digress. I’ve named these patties Spinach, Potato, and Chickpea Pakoras. No matter what you name them, are great with a few different sauces—an herbaceous cilantro and mint sauce (which is honestly so darn easy and fast you just have to make it), a sweet mango or peach chutney, a tart strained yogurt dip, or a cooling coconut chutney—and I love serving lime pickles for a unique option.

Ingredients

¼ cup plus 2 teaspoons canola oil or olive oil or a mixture of both, divided

3½ to 4 pounds fresh baby spinach, washed and drained (see Kitchen Tips)

1 small red onion

6 russet potatoes (about 3½ pounds)

5 teaspoons fenugreek seeds

3 teaspoons cumin seeds

1 teaspoon coriander seeds

4 large or 7 small dried bay leaves

1 tablespoon salt

1 dried red chili pepper (see Kitchen Tips)

5 large eggs

1½ cups chickpea flour

2 tablespoons Maldon salt, fleur de sel, or any flaky, large-crystal sea salt

Cilantro and mint sauce for serving, optional

Mango-Mango-Mango Chutney, for serving, optional

Instructions

  1. Peel and grate the onion (by hand with a box grater is far better than with a food processor, which can leave big pieces ungrated). Place the grated onion in a large bowl of ice water, making sure the onions are covered. Set aside.
  2. Cook the spinach: Heat 2 teaspoons of the oil over high heat, add the fresh spinach, stir to coat with the oil, and cook, lifting the spinach from the bottom (where it cooks first) to the top, so that the raw leaves on top will cook more quickly. Cook for about 10 minutes, until the spinach is wilted. Remove from the heat, transfer to a colander or strainer and press remove as much liquid as possible. Set aside.
  3. Peel the potatoes and shred them in a food processor fitted with a shredding blade. (You can shred them by hand, but in this case, the processor works great and is less wear and tear on your hands).
  4. Heat a small saucepan over high heat until hot. Add the fenugreek seeds, cumin, and coriander, stir, and toast for  25 to 35 seconds, just until fragrant. Transfer to a spice grinder (or a coffee grinder exclusively dedicated to spices), add the bay leaves, salt, and red pepper and grind until the mixture becomes a fine powder. (Make sure the bay leaves  are thoroughly ground; don’t leave any pointy bits.)
  5. Beat the egg in a large mixing bowl. Add the chickpea flour and mix to combine thoroughly. Add the spice mixture to the chickpea flour mixture and whisk to fully incorporate. It will be very thick and pasty.
  6. Drain the onions, discarding the water. Add the potatoes, drained onion, and cooled spinach to the chickpea mixture and stir to incorporate. Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour or overnight.
  7. When you are ready to fry, line a large platter with paper towels and position it near the stovetop.
  8. Heat 2 to 3 tablespoons of the oil in a 10- to 12-inch frying pan (enough to come about ¼ inch up the side) over medium heat. Carefully scoop about 1 heaping tablespoon of the mixture into the hot oil, spooning it away from you to avoid splattering yourself. Gently press to form a 2-inch patty. Repeat with 4 or 5 more patties, pressing each gently. Fry for 1½ to 2 minutes, until crisped and brown, adjusting the heat to medium-high if the oil gets too hot and the pakoras are in danger of burning. Turn with a spatula and cook for 1½ to 2 minutes more. Transfer to the prepared platter to drain. Repeat with the remaining pakora mixture, adding more oil to the pan as needed, and layering the plate with more paper towels as needed.
  9. To serve, sprinkle with Maldon salt or fleur de sel and pass with Cilantro and Mint Sauce, Mango-Mango-Mango Sauce or the sauce of your choice. 

Kitchen Tips

  1. Fresh baby spinach, now widely available in plastic clamshell packs at every grocery store, is great for making this recipe. You can, of course, use frozen cooked spinach, but defrost it fully. You will need about 3 pounds frozen. Whether defrosted or made from fresh, the cooked spinach should then be placed in a colander or strainer and squeezed to remove as much liquid as possible.
  2. The chemicals in chili peppers that cause that wonderful feeling of heat on the tongue can cause a not-so-wonderful feeling if they get into your eyes—and can share the love with other foods on your menu. To avoid cross-contamination, avoid touching your face or eyes after cutting and trimming hot chilies. Change work surfaces and knives. Some cooks wear plastic gloves.

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