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The Reluctant Novice : COOKING : THE VEGETARIAN ZONE : Going Meatless : A carnivore takes a crash course in the creation of karmically correct vegetable and bean dishes.

June 21, 1990

Do not attempt to adjust your newspaper page. You are about to take a cooking lesson in Ojai, and to do it you must enter the Vegetarian Zone. It begins at Bill and Joan Roberts' house--more specifically, at the door of their two-car, two- dvarapala garage. The dvarapalas , gate-keeping Indian demigods cast in fiberglass, flank the garage door.

The Robertses, who moved to Ojai three years ago, are followers of Indian spiritual tradition. They believe in the Vedic sciences, a body of ancient Sanskrit teachings, and their chosen interpreter of those teachings is Bhakivedanta, a serene old man whose photograph hangs above their kitchen stove. There's nothing particularly startling in that.

What seems more unfamiliar, at least to a kitchen-spurning, meat-eating person, is what goes on atop the burners on the Robertses' stove, namely cooking. This whole idea of A) preparing your own food, and B) doing so with nary a flank, loin or shank in sight--it's an alien thing, and it's what you're here to investigate.

"So," says Joan Roberts, ushering you into the kitchen, "what we're making is a soup--an Indian-style soup. It's called a dal ."

That's only the beginning. Soon there is lemon rice (nimbu bhat ) to consider, and sauteed cauliflower with Chinese peapods and cashews.

"My wife and I have been vegetarians for about 20 years," says Bill Roberts, who wears a flannel shirt and strides in and out with charts, treatises and historical observations. He is a systems analyst for Cincinnati Bell Information Systems Federal at Port Hueneme. Most people who turn vegetarian do so for health reasons these days, he says, but his conversion came in the late 1960s when he realized he couldn't kill animals.

"I figured that if I personally couldn't do that," he says, "then it would be hypocritical to pay someone else to do it for me."

Joan Roberts goes to work at the counter, kneading yeastless dough for chappati bread, sending little gray puffs into the air while sitars drone and frolic on a stereo in another room. She says she became a vegetarian for ethical reasons--"you know, justice for all. . . . It's not right to kill animals when you really don't need to."

By day, she sells real estate and is a representative of a consumers' cooperative called FundAmerica Inc., but every few months Joan Roberts offers vegetarian cooking classes in her home. She expects to stage the series of lessons in August. But before that, in July, she and her husband are considering putting together a series of lectures on vegetarianism.

Now to the cooking. Flames quiver on the stove. On the counter, a silver bowl sits full of water and soaking yellow pellets. Mung beans.

"This is a staple of our diet," Joan Roberts says. "And it's not like it's boring--'Oh, they eat nothing but beans'--because there are so many different kinds and they have so many different tastes."

Besides, she goes on, wielding a tinful of richly colored seeds, powders and leaves, there are spices to add, as well. Tumeric, she says, is good for the blood, and cumin aids digestion.

Soon three burners are occupied--one simmering mung beans, tumeric, carrots and water; one simmering salted rice; one heating ghee , which Roberts says is like clarified butter. No obscure butter here.

Into one simmering pot go minced ginger roots and chili peppers. Into a new little container on the fourth burner go a few pinches of cumin, some leaves and a few dozen mustard seeds. This is a method of spicing, and the cook pours this mixture atop the ghee and then plops in a potful of cauliflower.

There is much hissing, crackling and popping. It sounds, to you, like a steak on a hot grill.

"I would never have imagined that," Joan Roberts says.

Bill Roberts delivers vegetariana: For every person who switches to a pure vegetarian diet, an acre of trees is spared annually (from Cornell economist David Fields). It takes more than 625 gallons of water to produce a quarter-pound hamburger (from author John Robbins in "Diet for a New America"). Franz Kafka, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Leo Tolstoy, George Bernard Shaw, Mohandas K. Gandhi and Leonardo Da Vinci were vegetarians.

At the stove, more new ingredients: cilantro here, cashews there, and over here . . . frozen peas. Frozen peas? In a household that grows its own lemons, oranges, grapefruits, plums, persimmons, peaches, apples, figs, kiwi, grapes (seedless and purple) and avocados?

"We do work full-time jobs, both of us," Joan Roberts said. "There's a limit to what we can do."

You land two assignments: First you pour a few spices into a tiny bowl and duck for cover when the black mustard seeds turn gray and explode. Dodging the shrapnel, your instructor plops the whole batch into the rice.

Then you take a rolling pin to the dough that will become tortillas, though the Robertses insist on calling them chappati . Your work is lumpy and unround, but it puffs up over the burner just the same.

Finally, grape juice is poured, prayers are whispered, and after about an hour and a half of food preparation--that is, enough time to order a pizza, pop in a video and spend an hour in passive consumption--we dine.

You had suspected the food would taste like steamed laundry. It does not; in fact, it tastes good. If you could have the Robertses cook your dinner every night, you'd be all set.

But the Robertses have their own lives, their jobs, their stove, their garage dvarapala . And you have mustard seed shrapnel in your breast pocket.

THE PREMISE: There are plenty of things you have never tried. Fun things, dangerous things, character-building things. The Reluctant Novice tries them for you and reports the results. After all, the Novice gets paid to do them--and has no choice in the matter. This week's Reluctant Novice is Times staff writer Christopher Reynolds.

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