Not so long ago, there was a certain image associated with being vegetarian. It usually involved Birkenstocks, 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,” said Deborah Madison, whose cookbook “Vegetable Literacy” 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 past 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 spoon up 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,” said Mollie Katzen, whose 1977 “Moosewood Cookbook” made her a pioneer in the movement.
“Now I wouldn’t serve one heavy clunker in the center 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. The culinary revolution of the 1980s introduced Americans to a greater range of flavors and to the idea of fresh produce artfully deployed. A greater awareness of international cuisines also has opened doors to a new kind of vegetable-oriented cooking.
“We’ve brought so many cultural influences into the conversation,” said Diane Morgan, author most recently of “Roots,” 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. Now the volume of ethnic cookbooks coming into the conversation changes that.”
11/3pounds small eggplants
Fine sea salt
3teaspoons herbes de Provence (or mix of dried thyme, rosemary, basil and oregano), divided
11/3pounds medium zucchini
13/4pounds plum tomatoes
2small yellow onions, thinly sliced
8fresh sage leaves, minced
2garlic cloves, minced
An hour before you plan to cook, cut the eggplants crosswise into rounds about 1/8 inch thick. Set the rounds in a colander, then sprinkle with 1 teaspoon of salt. Toss to coat, then let rest in the sink for 1 hour to allow some of the moisture to be drawn out.
With kitchen or paper towels, pat the eggplant slices dry. Set the slices in a bowl and sprinkle with 1 teaspoon of the herbs.
Cut the zucchini and tomatoes crosswise into 1/2-inch rounds. Place in 2 bowls and sprinkle each with 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon of the herbs.
Heat the oven to 350 degrees.
Use the olive oil to lightly coat an 8-by-10-inch glass or ceramic baking dish. Scatter the sliced onions evenly over the bottom. Sprinkle with 1/4 teaspoon salt and a touch of olive oil.
Arrange a row of overlapping tomato slices along one side of the dish. Pack them in tightly so that they are almost upright. Sprinkle with a little sage and garlic. Follow with a row of overlapping eggplant slices alongside it, then a row of zucchini slices, sprinkling each with a little sage and garlic as you go. Repeat the pattern until you’ve filled the dish and used up all the vegetables, packing the rows of vegetables together very tightly.
Drizzle with 3 tablespoons of olive oil, cover loosely with foil, and bake for 30 minutes.
Increase the heat to 425 degrees and bake for another 30 minutes. Remove the foil and continue baking until the vegetables are tender and the tips of the slices are appealingly browned, about another 30 minutes. Serve hot, at room temperature, or chilled.
Makes 6 servings.
Adapted from Clotilde Dusoulier’s “The French Market Cookbook”