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Skip the sauce . . .

(ran ST edition)

Sauces are the crutch of the vegetarian diet.

Let's face it, they are an easy win. Anything tastes good slathered with cheese sauce, or gravy, pesto, marinara or sweet and sour.

Good as these are, however, they have a down side. Sometimes we become so used to saucing our food, we forget how great the ingredients can be on their own.

The tendency probably is a result of vegetarian dishes typically not being as naturally savory as those with meat. Though vegetables never will taste like a burger, we shouldn't forget they still can taste great on their own.

This notion of oversaucing came to me the other night as I was preparing an udon noodle stir-fry with diced carrots, red and yellow bell peppers and broccoli _ topped with several cups of spicy peanut sauce, of course.

So let's start there. If we wanted to de-sauce that dinner and allow ourselves to actually taste the ingredients, we have several options, all of which pack plenty of flavor while enhancing the natural tastes and textures of the dish.

Instead of using the peanut sauce, I could have sauteed the ingredients with a tablespoon of toasted sesame oil, which imparts an authentic, clean and subtle Asian flavor, but still lets the ingredients' own flavors stand out.

Using wine also would be a good bet, providing moisture for cooking and just a hint of flavor. Any white wine would do fine (or try sake or mirin).

To give the dish an Italian twist, olive oil and a few minced garlic cloves are another possibility.

So noodle dishes are easy. But what about plain old vegetables, such as the head of cauliflower and bag of carrots hiding in your refrigerator? You don't need to settle on steaming, boiling or salads to appreciate them for their own virtues.

Try the carrots cut into matchsticks or thin rounds and sauteed until just tender in a bit of olive oil and a pinch of salt. Cut the cauliflower into small florets and prepare in the same fashion, but with walnut oil and just a pinch of red pepper flakes. These minor seasonings heighten rather than mask the vegetables' flavors.

Ginger is another nice accent. Fresh green beans sauteed in a little olive or canola oil and a teaspoon of grated fresh ginger can be wonderful.

Fruit and juices also can help. Try broccoli sauteed with a handful of fresh apple chunks in a splash of apple cider vinegar and a touch of salt. For a simple and stunning corn dish, try frozen kernels sauteed with a diced onion in a little orange juice and a tablespoon of butter or soy margarine.

Cooking methods also can make all the difference. For a flavorful vegetable dish, try Robin Robertson's roasted sesame asparagus, from her new cookbook Vegan Planet (Harvard Common Press, 2003, $18.95).

A little oil, along with some high-heat cooking, gives hefty flavor to this light and easy dish.

Or try a combination of a handful of simple but assertive ingredients, as in Robertson's broccoli rabe with figs, garlic and pine nuts. This dish makes good use of contrasting ingredients: tender broccoli rabe, sweet figs, pungent garlic and crunchy pine nuts. The only seasoning needed is a touch of salt and pepper.

To make either of these dishes into a hearty meal, toss them with fresh pasta (sans sauce).

Roasted Sesame Asparagus

2 tablespoons sesame seeds

1{ to 2 pounds thin asparagus spears, bottoms trimmed and discarded

1{ tablespoons peanut oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon sesame oil

Preparation time: 25 minutes.

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Gently roast the sesame seeds in a dry saute pan over low-medium heat. Stir constantly until they just begin to turn tan and pop, about 4 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and set aside.

Cut the asparagus diagonally into 2-inch pieces and place in a bowl. Drizzle with the peanut oil and season with salt and pepper to taste. Toss to coat evenly, then arrange on a baking sheet in a single layer.

Roast the asparagus until just tender, about 6-8 minutes.

Transfer asparagus to a bowl and sprinkle with sesame seeds. Drizzle with sesame oil and toss to coat. Serve immediately.

Makes 4 servings.

Source: "Vegan Planet" by Robin Robertson (Harvard Common Press, $18.95).

Broccoli Rabe With Figs, Garlic and Pine Nuts

2 bunches broccoli rabe, stems trimmed, coarsely chopped

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

3 garlic cloves, minced

cup chopped fresh or dried figs

\ cup pine nuts

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Preparation time: 25 minutes.

Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a rolling boil. Add the broccoli rabe and cook for 5 minutes. Drain well and set aside.

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic and saute until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the figs and pine nuts and cook until the nuts are lightly toasted, about 1 minute.

Add the broccoli rabe and season with salt and pepper to taste. Cook, stirring occasionally, until tender and heated through, about 3 minutes. Serve immediately.

Makes 4 servings.

Source: "Vegan Planet" by Robin Robertson.

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