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Cooking Secrets Of a Recipe Thief

January 09, 2002|BARBARA HANSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The two women were discussing mushrooms in the produce department at a Chinese market. "Add a little soy sauce and some onion," said one. "Put in ginger root, of course, and be sure to include a dash of sugar." I couldn't wait to try it myself.

We learn new dishes in any number of ways--from cookbooks, friends, publications, TV shows and restaurants. And sometimes even by eavesdropping.

I came across an idea for spinach seasoned with lots of garlic in a Cantonese restaurant in Chinatown. The greens were drenched with a clear sauce that contained an impressive amount of chopped garlic. I could taste no soy sauce, or maybe just a little of the light kind that adds saltiness rather than color. And I detected the slight perfume of toasted sesame oil.

As with the mushrooms, after a little experimenting I had come up with an easy dish that takes almost no time to prepare, once you've washed and trimmed the spinach.

Some people dislike broccoli, but they've probably never encountered sweet Thai-style broccoli, which appeared as a garnish on a platter at a Thai restaurant in West Los Angeles. When I was curious, a Thai friend explained how to make it. It's better than candy, in my opinion--the bright green vegetable topped with crunchy, golden fried garlic and lightly seasoned with a mixture of fish sauce and sugar.

Braised red cabbage sounds so European--until you taste it cooked Bengali style with an Indian spice called kala jeera (black cumin). Debashish Banerji, director of the Sri Aurobindo Center in Culver City, combines the cabbage with potatoes, ginger and fresh basil. It's a fusion dish based on a recipe from his native Calcutta. Black cumin, which tastes nothing like ordinary cumin, is available in Indian shops here.

Banerji also adds black mustard seeds, and he cooks the cabbage lightly so that it remains slightly crunchy. That's a radical switch from the Indian preference for vegetables cooked until soft.

Sometimes ideas come from nowhere, like a lightbulb of inspiration popping in one's brain. This is how I came up with a variation on classic Scandinavian red cabbage. Apple is often added, and it occurred to me to put in dried cranberries too. Balsamic vinegar fits the sweet-sour concept of the dish, so a few drops of that, along with wine and currant jelly, seemed appropriate. The result was red cabbage with a twist, but still acceptably traditional.

The other day, I was examining a head of broccoflower in the market when a hefty cauliflower tumbled from the rack above and hit me. I'll get even by putting it into soup, I decided. Or maybe into the Indian potato-cauliflower dish called aloo gobi, although green-gold broccoflower might look more interesting in that combination.

Now you see how easy it is to come up with new ideas. Keep your eyes open when you're eating out, listen hard when you're at the grocery and always be ready for inspiration, or a cauliflower, to strike.

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Debashish Banerji's Potatoes With Cabbage

Active Work Time: 15 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 45 minutes * Vegetarian

Black cumin seeds and black mustard seeds are available at Indian markets.

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1 1/2 pounds red cabbage

1 1/2 tablespoons oil

1 teaspoon black cumin seeds (kala jeera)

1/2 teaspoon black mustard seeds

1 1/2 tablespoons finely chopped ginger root

6 basil leaves

12 baby red potatoes (about 1 pound), unpeeled, cut in half

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup cilantro leaves, packed

*

Remove the outer cabbage leaves. Quarter the cabbage, if whole, and remove the core. Slice the cabbage crosswise into 1/2-inch pieces.

Heat the oil in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the black cumin and mustard seeds and cook until the mustard seeds pop, 1 minute. Add the ginger, then the basil leaves and cook a minute or so. Add the potatoes and cook, stirring to mix with the spices, about 3 minutes. Add the cabbage and salt. Mix well, cover and cook over medium-high heat until the potatoes are tender and the cabbage is wilted but still slightly crunchy, about 20 minutes.

Taste and add more salt if needed. Turn out and top with cilantro leaves.

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6 servings. Each serving: 109 calories; 405 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 4 grams fat; 0 saturated fat; 17 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams protein; 3.51 grams fiber.

*

Wilted Garlic Spinach

Active Work and Total Preparation Time: 20 minutes

Serve this, if desired, over cooked rice. You'll find light soy sauce--which refers to its color, not its sodium content-- at Asian markets.

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1 bunch spinach (about 3/4 pound)

2 tablespoons chicken broth

1 tablespoon light soy sauce

1 teaspoon sugar

1 teaspoon cornstarch

1/2 teaspoon Asian sesame oil

Salt, optional

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 tablespoon chopped garlic

*

Remove the coarse stems from the spinach, then wash the spinach well to remove all grit and drain thoroughly.

Combine the chicken broth, soy sauce, sugar, cornstarch and sesame oil in a small bowl. If the broth is not salty, add salt to taste.

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