Being a vegetarian in the West used to be associated with wearing Birkenstock sandals, flavourless dishes involving lentils and an agenda to be promoted on the benefits of the lifestyle.
That is all changing, with a growing number of people participating in the kinder, gentler, less all-or-nothing meatless movement.
That’s because at the same time, people are eating less meat and vegetables have gained respect as worthy ingredients in their own right, not just as the garnish for a steak.
“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 people treating meat as a side dish – as so many in South Asia have done. The result is a doubling in the number of farmers’ markets in the past decade and a 12 per cent drop in meat consumption since 2007.
As the concept of what constitutes a meal has widened, so has the range of vegetarian options. During the 1970s and 1980s, lentil loaf was a very real and terrifying thing. Meanwhile, in a search to replace the missing meat, many chefs loaded dishes 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 in the centre of the plate. My cooking is far more modular – a little bit of whole grains, some legumes. I like to call it ‘the peace sign plate’.”
If chefs have changed, so have their audiences, who yearn for a greater range of flavours and fresh produce, artfully deployed.
“We’ve brought so many cultural influences into the conversation,” says Diane Morgan, the author most recently of Roots (Chronicle Books, 2012), which celebrates turnips, sunchokes and other underground vegetables. “The granola-era people weren’t making risotto. They were turning spaghetti and meatballs into something else – the meatballs had brown rice, but they weren’t sophisticated.” There are also a growing number of “celebrity” vegetables replacing the tired portobello mushroom that began standing in for burgers on restaurant menus in the 1980s. Once reviled items such as Brussels sprouts – which Katzen says “were almost a punch line” – are being roasted, grilled and julienned. Kale salad is on trendy menus across the country, and kale chips – which Katzen says she made in the 1990s to great guffaws – are on grocery store shelves. Cauliflower may be next.
“Cauliflower is the new kale,” says Katzen, noting the prevalence of roasted cauliflower “steaks” in magazines and on restaurant menus. “I’m seeing cauliflower everywhere.”
But perhaps the biggest change is that eating vegetables is no longer about avoiding meat. While early chefs tried to reconfigure vegetables and grains to resemble meat in taste and texture as closely as possible, today’s vegetable cooking focuses on the best qualities of the produce. And yes, sometimes meat is even involved. This vegetable-forward approach can be seen on cookbook covers, where the word “vegetarian” has either disappeared or been minimised.
Vegetables Please by Carolyn Humphries (DK Publishing, 2013) bills itself as “the more vegetables, less meat cookbook.” Eat Your Vegetables by Arthur Potts Dawson (Octopus Publishing, 2012) extols the virtues of chilled pea soup, but also offers recipes such as lamb tagine with sugar snap peas. Morgan’s Roots mixes purely vegetarian recipes such as raw beet salad with beef-wrapped burdock root.
"It's safe to come out now and say 'here's a bunch of vegetarian food'," says Katzen, the author of the forthcoming The Heart of the Plate (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Sept. 2013). "It's a mainstream choice. I can confidently put it right at the top of my cover and people won't run away from it. They won't think: 'It's a handbook for a club I didn't join."'
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