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A gastronomic world within reach

On the Internet, you can find the most exotic, authentic recipes. Need a special ingredient? It's in cyberspace too.

January 21, 2004|Regina Schrambling | Special to The Times

The Internet is an especially valid passport to Italy. For all the superb regional cookbooks in print these days, there are probably more websites with distinct advantages. Not only are they easier to search (no index can compare with a computer) but they also lean more toward exotica. On www.capriflavors.com, for instance, I found a good rendition of spaghetti aum aum, with a cheesy eggplant sauce I ate repeatedly on Capri. The site www.italianmade.com sponsored by the Italian Trade Commission, also has almost as many regional specialties as Italy has pastas, including sweet pumpkin tortelloni and buttery fontina gnocchi -- and a very useful glossary.

Commercial sites turn out to be surprisingly good sources of authentic recipes. The site www.agferrari.com is in business to sell Italian products, particularly high-end oils and vinegars, but its recipe collection is impressive. It's where I finally found sgroppino al limone, an amazing drink from the Veneto made with Prosecco, vodka and lemon sorbet that I first tasted on the Sicilian island of Pantelleria. Neither my Venice souvenir cookbook nor my Pantelleria one included it, and I had to get an Italian I met on the island to e-mail me his idea of a recipe.

Unfortunately, it only listed ingredients, so I made a drink that was about 60% alcohol. Italians may cook by feel, but Americans need proportions. Agferrari provided a real recipe, one I was confident enough to tweak (adding more fizzy Prosecco, for starters).

For innovative recipes, sites focused on restaurants, run by either individuals or groups, can open up new worlds of contemporary cooking. The site www.miettas.com, set up by a restaurant guide, is a good destination for anyone wondering what's cooking in Australia (and it's not kangaroo). Even though Australian cookbooks are becoming internationally available, the cuisine there changes as fast as ours does, and this site reflects the situation. You can find any number of over-the-top creations by chefs making the most of local ingredients, both exotic, like yabbies (river crustaceans) and mainstream, like goat cheese.

Chefs who see themselves as the next Mario also are producing sites with serious recipes, letting patrons reconnect back home. One of the better destinations for anyone who will never make it to Northern Ireland is www.gourmetireland.com, run by Paul and Jeanne Rankin, a legendary chef couple who use local foraged foods in 21st century ways. Ten years ago, I had to tote their two cookbooks all the way from Belfast after a stunning meal at their Michelin one-star Roscoff, and now their latest concoctions (celery leaf tempura, smoked haddock hash) are a click away. Then there's www.sanjeevkapoor.com, which showcases India's celebrity chef whose food I liked at Grain of Salt in Calcutta -- dishes like fish curry and corn and paneer croquettes.

My ignorant American side tends to give the highest ratings to sites that are all in English, but most do have a translation option. In many cases, though, you might be better off getting out your old travel dictionary. Some enticing sites a French friend swears by, such as www .gastronomie.com and www.marmiton .com, are excellent only for Francophones -- the English phrases are laughable. (Marmiton has recipes with titles such as Pot With the Angels and Typed Express Train; one called Soup Dawn ends with this mysterious instruction: "Add to the cooking of vegetables a calf bulge which will be able to consume itself hot or cold.")

Unlike cookbooks, websites are usually updated, and regularly. Errors can get fixed, and many sites are as interactive as Tarla Dalal's. Some, like 1worldrecipes .com, let users rate recipes. (A suspicious number, I have to say, hold five stars.)

Unfortunately, the feedback is sometimes essential. Recipes published without that old filter -- the editor -- tend to pick up glitches. Even the keshi yena recipe, which is identical on at least a dozen websites, is troublesome. The massive filling overflows the cheese, and the cheese can melt from your oven halfway to Willemstad. The flavors are exceptional, though, and the one recipe that advised using layers of sliced cheese rather than a whole round turned out to be the solution in the L.A. Times Test Kitchen. Not surprisingly, the layered effect was actually the way I had encountered the dish in Curacao, although there it had banana leaves enclosing both cheese and filling.

Seductive access

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