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A spice box and a cookbook got her started

(Page 2 of 2)

But a "mastery over the seasonings can make all the difference," the author of my cookbook emphasized. Learning to temper spices efficiently in an American kitchen was tough, but the procedure paid gastronomical dividends and taught me the virtue of patience.

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Initially, when I walked down the produce aisles of the neighborhood grocery store, I could name only some of the vegetables.

JalapeƱos, the pleasantly plump relatives of the tiny Indian mirchi, looked deceptively harmless. My roommate decided to bite into one to check if this chili was "hot," and ended up doing a crazy jig in Aisle 6 until I rushed back with a bottle of blue Gatorade.

It took a sniff test to distinguish between curly parsley and cilantro, and one roommate always brought back the wrong herb. Humongous eggplants, which neither looked nor tasted like the aubergines back home, called for an entirely different treatment than the cookbook's suggestions.

Broccoli, a cousin of the cauliflower, is not amenable to spices, I found. Asparagus is as easy as green beans; fiddleheads are not fussy either. With some thought and effort, I could eventually handle most of the produce.

My mother's strategic additions to my luggage had rescued me from bland American food, as well as my own picky eating habits.

Over the years, my palate has become more sophisticated, and my collection of cookbooks has grown into a small library. But the one slim volume my mother gave me still holds it own.

And if there had ever been a real fire that made the oversensitive smoke alarm wail for all it's worth, I would have grabbed my spice box, run outside, and calmly waited for the red truck to arrive.

Indian Beans and Peas

For tempering
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon black gram dal (also known as urad dhal )
1 teaspoon Bengal gram dal (also known as chana dhal )
1 dried red chili
A few curry leaves (optional)
1/2 teaspoon minced garlic

Other ingredients
1 pound fresh green beans (remove strings and cut beans into 1-inch pieces)
1 to 2 handfuls of frozen peas
2 tablespoons grated, unsweetened coconut (frozen or dry)
Salt to taste

For tempering: Heat the oil over high heat in a small pan, and keep the lid nearby. When the oil gets hot, add the mustard seeds and put the lid on right away. Turn the heat to low when the mustard seeds begin to pop. When seeds stop popping, add all the other tempering ingredients. The minced garlic should go in last. Stir until the black gram dal turns a golden brown, about 5 minutes.

Steam the green beans until they are slightly tender. Cook the frozen peas, following the directions on the package. When the beans are steamed, transfer them to a larger pan and add the peas. Mix in the coconut.

Remove the red chili and curry leaves from the tempering (they are not meant to be eaten, just to add flavor). Add the tempering mixture to beans and peas, and toss together. Salt to taste.

Serves 5 to 6 as a side dish.