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.