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The Infinite Vegetarian

October 20, 1994|BARBARA HANSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"What better vegetarian food is there than that of India?" asks Neelam Batra. "Indians can cook vegetarian every day of the year and not have to repeat a recipe."

This Santa Monica-based author and cooking teacher is loyal to her native cuisine--and with good reason, having just written "The Indian Vegetarian" (Macmillan; $25) for those who want to incorporate new flavors in their own meatless cooking. The book is subtitled "Flavors for the American Kitchen."

'I'm not aiming at the Indian market," says Batra. "They know what to do."

Batra includes fusion recipes such as paneer cheese fajitas (paneer is Indian-style homemade cheese), raita with avocado and toasted slivered almonds, and upside-down basmati rice cake with crispy ginger and onion. She suggests that certain sauces be served over pasta. It's a liberal approach that grew out of comments from her students and from her own experiments with the produce she buys each week at the Santa Monica farmers market.

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Batra fills her cloth shopping bags with green and yellow zucchini, lettuce, carrots, sugar snap peas, cauliflower, Asian pears, cilantro and whatever else is in prime shape, then incorporates these into Indian-style dishes.

Mushrooms go into grilled-mushroom-and-cheese sandwiches lightly flavored with curry powder. Apricots, peaches, kiwi and summer berries inspire a fruit salad seasoned with Indian chaat masala. And purple and gold potatoes wind up in a saute with dill or cilantro. In addition to these recipes, Batra also includes some for classical Indian dishes, many of them from her family and friends.

Born in New Delhi, Batra moved to Los Angeles with her husband 21 years ago. At that time, Indian restaurants were rare in this city. Although she had never formally studied cooking, Batra had watched the preparation of dishes at home. Her mother had insisted on it. "I tried to recapture all my memories and started cooking," she said. She did it so well that a friend suggested she teach. For years now, Batra has taught cooking classes at Santa Monica City College and Montana Mercantile.

During lunch at Nawab in Santa Monica, Batra nibbled on grilled shrimp and chicken with saag (spiced greens); clearly, she is not a vegetarian. Batra had intended to write a comprehensive book including meats, but her publisher wanted the vegetarian angle. That was fine with Batra. "I have a way with vegetables," she says.

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Batra hopes to perk up the standard American "light" diet (which relies on salads and plain steamed vegetables) with nutritious, flavorful legumes, breads and paneer dishes.

In India, paneer is a plain, white cheese, but Batra has come up with innovative herb and spice-flavored variations. She uses basil-flavored paneer in a tossed green salad and suggests adding this low-fat cheese to pizza, pasta and stir-fries. She calls it "today's guilt-free cheese."

Batra's chapter on sauces departs from Indian custom. In India, sauces are part of each dish and are not prepared separately. Western cooks, on the other hand, create sauces to drizzle over food or serve on the side. Batra combines the two approaches with Indian-flavored sauces that can accompany a variety of dishes. Recipes range from classic curry sauce to a yogurt sauce with caramelized onion that can be used on pizza instead of tomato sauce.

Batra does adhere to some traditions. She came to lunch dressed in a lacy cotton sari trimmed in burgundy and gold and printed with peacocks, the national bird of India. And, like her mother, she uses a pressure cooker. As a matter of fact, she has five of them.

In India, where hospitality is a way of life, it is necessary to cook quickly for unexpected guests. Batra recalls her mother would expand a meal in a few minutes, using the pressure cooker. Batra uses hers for legumes, curries and even for caramel custard, a recipe included in the dessert chapter.

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Although she nibbled with apparent immunity on a slice of raw serrano chile, Batra plays down the spiciness of Indian cuisine. "Contrary to popular belief, the vegetarian food cooked in homes in India as well as here is not very spicy," she said. "And it is not heavy on the stomach."

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Pistachios and almonds add rich taste to this unusual version of spinach salad. Batra credits the idea to Sunil Vora of the Clay Pit restaurant in Los Angeles.

FRESH SPINACH SALAD WITH CUMIN-YOGURT DRESSING

1/2 cup shelled raw pistachios

1 cup nonfat plain yogurt, whisked until smooth

1/2 cup low-fat milk

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 tablespoon ground roasted cumin seeds

1 teaspoon salt, or to taste

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or to taste

1 bunch spinach, trimmed of tough stems, rinsed and coarsely chopped

1/2 cup toasted slivered almonds

1/4 teaspoon paprika

Place pistachios in small saucepan and add water to cover. Bring to boil over high heat, then remove from heat and let soak 30 minutes. Drain. Transfer to kitchen towel and rub gently to remove skins. Set aside for garnish.

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