Picture: Michael Wilson/The West Australian

Not so long ago, there was a certain image associated with being vegetarian. It usually involved Birkenstocks, hairy armpits, lentil loaf and an agenda.

There still are plenty of all these in the meatless movement, but a growing number of people are finding they can have cauliflower and kale at the centre 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.

"I've always struggled with the 'vegetarian' label," says 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 people treating meat as the side dish.

Shifting attitudes regarding what and how we eat also come into play.

Today we eat more casually than previous generations.

The idea of a "centre of the plate" - a large piece of meat surrounded by a starch and a vegetable - has loosened.

Many of us 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 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. The culinary revolution of the 1980s introduced us to a greater range of flavours 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," says 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."

A growing number of "celebrity" vegetables have replaced the tired portobello mushroom that began standing in for burgers on restaurant menus in the 1980s.

Once-reviled items like Brussels sprouts - which Katzen says "were almost a punch line" - are being roasted, grilled and julienned.

Kale salad is trendy and kale chips - which Katzen says she made in the 90s to great guffaws - are on supermarket 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.

"It's safe to come out now and say, 'Here's a bunch of vegetarian food'," says Katzen, author of the forthcoming The Heart of the Plate.

"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."'

The West Australian

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