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COOKBOOK WATCH

From the wild, wild East

An inventive cook corners fusion and takes Japanese food on an adventure.

October 29, 2003|Regina Schrambling | Special to The Times

Japanese and fusion are two cuisines that make me nervous. One is daunting and the other usually a disaster. But the best new book I've cooked from in months dabbles in both -- with dishes such as edamame in mint pesto and shiso with corn -- and nothing is lost in translation.

"The Breakaway Japanese Kitchen" (Kodansha, $27) is by Eric Gower, a self-trained San Francisco cook who lived in Japan for 15 years and whose first cookbook was written in Japanese. Like a photographer who knows his technique so well he will shoot out of focus for greater effect, Gower takes Japanese ingredients and concepts into territory undoubtedly never explored in Tokyo. Or California.

Gower clearly is so comfortable with the flavors and traditions of his second home that he can take a mad-scientist approach to them and make every recipe work in a few steps and very little time. Tofu baked with a pistachio-mint pesto is a combination that would never occur to me, but it's one of the most amazing things ever to come out of my oven.

This is not "Japanese Cooking for Dummies," although a kitchen virgin would have no trouble mastering any of the 45 recipes, each gorgeously photographed by Fumihiko Watanabe. One of the few typical Japanese dishes is a twist on tonkatsu in which the breaded pork cutlets are baked rather than fried. More often Gower borrows concepts and tastes to produce Western food with just enough Eastern exoticism.

His lively interpretation of coleslaw is dressed with ginger and brown rice vinegar and garnished with roasted peanuts. His beet salad is a wonderment with smoked trout, ginger and walnuts; his pot roast is braised with soy sauce and orange (and a hint of very un-Asian chipotle chile). The tofu recipes would convert a carnivore. Even his rice is a hemisphere away from Uncle Ben's: He seasons it with bay leaves and Dijon mustard and substitutes carrot juice for water. With all those, you can forgive him for including the requisite miso-glazed fish.

Gower has a thing for pesto, but he takes one of the most cliched concepts into another universe. His version made with ground dried shiitakes and roasted almonds borders on brilliant. Like the other reinterpretations, one with edamame and another with pistachios, it was just as great as a sauce for steamed green beans and a spread for bruschetta as it was on pasta.

"Breakaway" lives up to its title in other ways. It includes no appetizers or desserts, and it makes a persuasive case for taking as much care with the choice of serving bowls as with the food in them. (A list of sources is included.) None of the recipes calls for anything more exotic than shiso leaves, miso or brown rice vinegar, all easily located in an Asian grocery. But the vinegar alone was worth the detour: It's as smooth and deep as balsamic but tarter and not as syrupy. Not every one of Gower's creations is a winner -- potatoes with sake were soggy, for instance -- and yields are sometimes off. But those are quibbles. After I cooked four dishes for a dinner party, one guest went out the next morning to buy his own copy of the book.

At a time when originality seems to be the missing ingredient in far too many cookbooks, "Breakaway" is a good cure for the comfort-food blues.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Edamame mint pesto pasta

Total time: About 20 minutes

Servings: 4

Note: You can serve this on a sliced baguette as an appetizer as well as with pasta. Edamame, green soybeans, are available fresh and frozen in well-stocked markets.

1/2 pound pasta

1 cup cooked, shelled edamame

1/4cup smoked almonds, or cashews or pine nuts

1 cup fresh mint leaves, chopped,

1 tablespoon reserved for garnish

3/4 cup fruity extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon minced ultra-fresh garlic

Sea salt and coarsely ground black pepper

1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook until al dente.

2. While the pasta cooks, combine the edamame, nuts, mint and olive oil in a blender or food processor and blend until chunky. Stir in the garlic and season with salt and pepper.

3. When the pasta is cooked, drain it well and return it to the pot. Add the pesto and toss until coated. Season with salt and pepper liberally to taste and top with the reserved mint.

Each serving: 741 calories; 15 grams protein; 50 grams carbohydrates;

4 grams fiber; 49 grams fat; 6 grams saturated fat; 0 cholesterol; 12 mg. sodium.

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Japanese coleslaw

Total time: 15 minutes

Servings: 3 to 4

Note: You can serve this immediately, but like all coleslaws, it improves with time. Overnight chilling makes it perfect. It's worth seeking out brown rice vinegar, available in Japanese markets, but you can substitute regular rice wine vinegar.

2 cups shredded green cabbage

2 cups shredded red cabbage

1 large carrot, peeled and grated

2 tablespoons walnut oil

1 teaspoon sesame oil

2 tablespoons brown rice vinegar

1 tablespoon tamari or soy sauce

1 tablespoon maple syrup or honey

2 tablespoons freshly grated ginger

1/4cup finely chopped roasted, salted peanuts

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