The fresh, mainstream look of vegetarian cooking

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Many international cuisines have opened doors to a new kind of vegetable-oriented cooking. (Thinkstock) Many international cuisines have opened doors to a new kind of vegetable-oriented cooking. (Thinkstock)
SummaryMany international cuisines have opened doors to a new kind of vegetable-oriented cooking.

Not so long ago, there was a certain image associated with being vegetarian. It usually involved Birkenstock sandals, lentil loaf and an agenda. There still are plenty of all three in the meatless movement, but a growing number of Americans are finding they can have cauliflower and kale at the center of the plate without a side of ideology.

That's because at the same time people are eating less meat, vegetables have gained respect as worthy ingredients in their own right, not just as the garnish for a steak. There even are celebrity vegetables (ramps and Brussels sprouts, anyone?). And perhaps most telling, the word "vegetarian'' has moved from the center of cookbook covers to the margins, if it's seen at all.

"I've always struggled with the 'vegetarian' label,'' says Deborah Madison, whose cookbook "Vegetable Literacy'' (Ten Speed Press, 2013) is the most recent in her 30- year career of writing about vegetables. "When I began writing it was so much about a lifestyle. You were or you weren't and people didn't cross that line.''

Today that line is fluid. Movements such as "Meatless Mondays,'' as well as concerns about food quality and a tighter economy, have more Americans treating meat as the side dish. And it shows in how we shop. The number of farmers markets has more than doubled during the last 10 years, and meat consumption is down 12 percent since 2007.

Shifting attitudes regarding what and how we eat also come into play. Americans today eat more casually than previous generations. The idea of a "center of the plate'' a large piece of meat surrounded by a starch and a vegetable has loosened. Many Americans happily graze on Mediterranean tapas, indulge in sushi or slurp Asian soups like Vietnamese pho, where meat is an afterthought.

As our concept of what constitutes a meal has widened, so has the range of vegetarian options. During the '70s and '80s, lentil loaf was a very real and terrifying thing. Meanwhile, in a search to replace the "missing'' meat, many chefs loaded up on cheese, eggs and cream, trying to fill diners up and prove that vegetarian food could be satisfying. And brown rice and other bland ingredients made eating healthy seem like punishment.

"I was going for bulk, for comfort food,'' says Mollie Katzen, whose 1977 "Moosewood Cookbook'' (Ten Speed Press) made her a pioneer in the movement. "Now I wouldn't serve one heavy clunker

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