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STEWING OVER AN UNWRITTEN FAVORITE RECIPE

Why is it that the best cooks never seem to use recipes? I crave Reta's Special Stewed Fish on a regular basis. No matter how many times I asked for the recipe, the Jamaican grandmother insisted that sharing simply wasn't possible.

"I just put in the vegetables and the fish, and cook until it looks right," she said.

That wasn't a problem when we could convince our friend to make her favorite fish on a regular basis. But before we moved 16 hours away, I had to figure out the secret. The next few times Reta fixed what she called "brown-stew fish," I shadowed her every move.

"Don't put that in yet," I'd shout. "I have to measure it first."

Reta's snickers indicated that she found the whole experiment amusing, but I like to think that deep down she was pleased. When you taste these exotic (yet oh-so-easy and fast) fillets, you'll be pleased as well.

Menu:

Reta's Special Stewed Fish

Corn Muffins (purchased)

RETA'S SPECIAL STEWED FISH

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons seasoning salt, such as Lawry's

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 1/2 pounds firm, white, skinless, boneless fish fillets, such as tilapia

12 peeled baby carrots

1 medium onion (for 3/4 cup slices)

1 large green bell pepper (for 1 1/2 cups strips)

1 1/2 cups water

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

1 large ripe tomato
Measure the flour, seasoning salt and black pepper into a gallon-size plastic bag. Seal the bag, shake to mix, and set aside.

Heat the oil in a 4 1/2 -quart Dutch oven or soup pot on medium-high. Quarter each fish fillet, and place the fish in the bag. Seal the bag and shake vigorously to coat the fish with flour. Place the pieces in the hot oil and fry 3 minutes on the first side until lightly browned. Turn and fry 2 minutes on the other side. While the fish cooks, slice each baby carrot into quarters. Set aside. Peel the onion and cut it into 1/4 -inch slices. Set aside. Rinse and seed the bell pepper, and slice it into 1/4 -inch strips. Set aside.

After the fish is brown on both sides, add the water, carrots, vinegar, and Worcestershire sauce. Add the onion to the pot, separating the slices into rings with your fingers.

Core the tomato and cut it into wedges. Add them to the pot. Continue to boil the mixture, covered, until the vegetables are soft and fragrant and the liquid reduces to a gravy, about 7 minutes. Serve at once, spooning some of the vegetables and gravy over the top. Makes 4 servings.

Start to finish: 20 minutes.

Send us desperate tales of woe or everyday success stories and your favorite quick recipes to Desperation Dinners, c/o United Media, 200 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016; or e-mail: ddinnersaol.com.

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