We decided to perform an experiment at our dinner table. The purpose: to see whether or not the whole family will hang together at mealtime when there are ''hamburger types'' at one end of the table and ''vegetable freaks'' at the other.
The results have been positive. We've found it can be a real bonus to take an interest in an alternative diet and to sample the other fellow's staples and preferences.
We've not only opened up our taste buds to a whole new world of culinary adventure, we've also offset inflationary meat prices in the bargain.
As a start, I gradually added such vegetarian foods as tofu, miso, wheat germ , kasha, and sprouts to our day-to-day meals to bridge the gap between us.
Tofu, the Oriental high-protein soybean curd that can be cubed to float in soups, can also be mashed and added to casseroles; stir-fried with vegetables or other foods; and cooked with chopped onions, peppers, and tomatoes to fill a burger roll or pita-bread sandwich.
So tofu is a good alternative to the meat at the other end of the table.
Stir-fried greens, mushrooms, and sprouts can all go with diced chicken for some people, with tofu for others. It is even better if the resident vegetarian does the stir-frying, since he or she should have a feel for the fine line between tough and crisp, tender and soft vegetables.
As an introduction, blend familiar tastes with the new. Here is a recipe to get you started: Stir-Fry Vegetables 2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil 4 large carrots, 2 inches long by 1/2 inch 4 celery stalks, 2 inches long by 1/2 inch 2 dozen snap beans, 2 inches long 1/4 pound mushrooms, sliced 1/4 cup green scallion tops, finely chopped 1 clove garlic, finely chopped 1 inch ginger root, sliced 1 tablespoon cornstarch 1 tablespoon water
Blend cornstarch with water in a small cup and put aside.
Heat oil in heavy skillet or wok and sprinkle with salt. Saute ginger and garlic slices a few minutes until soft, then remove.
Add a layer of the vegetable that requires longest cooking, carrots in this case, and stir briskly over high heat until shiny with oil. Add a little more oil if necessary.
Add remaining vegetables in turn - beans, then celery, then mushrooms - stirring constantly until vegetable color intensifies and brightens.
Add about 1/4 cup water, or broth, and cook on high heat, covered tightly, until boiling, then lower heat and cook covered about 5 minutes. Test for tenderness. Cook until tender but still crunchy.
Push vegetables to one side and tip pan to collect liquid. Add cornstarch to liquid and stir constantly until slightly thick.
Add more water if too thick. Mix into vegetables until all are coated and shiny. Sprinkle with scallions. Serves 6.
Variation: Add bean sprouts and serve with sauteed cubes of chicken or tofu.
Dried beans are another valuable staple in our shared diets. We soak, then cook enough for two meals at one time. For an old-fashioned main-dish soup we add plenty of water, a big carrot, some stalks of celery, and an onion.
This makes lots of beans, a pint or so of bean broth, and vegetables ready to be cut up into the soup.
Season with soy sauce instead of salt, add cooked macaroni, canned tomatoes, as many beans as needed, and some other cooked vegetables like cabbage and string beans.
For the table, serve slices of cooked meat for one end, and a dish of miso to be stirred into each serving at the other end.
Miso is an enzyme-rich soy paste that doesn't need cooking. It gives a salty richness to food. With grilled cheese sandwiches, such a thick soup makes a satisfying busy-day meal.
A spicy dish suitable for both ends of the table is meatless chili served with rice. To give the chili character, though meatless, fry onions, green peppers, add canned tomatoes, and season with soy sauce.
Add cooked beans from the former soup preparation, and chili powder, and simmer slowly until well blended.
For a fast meal on the run, our in-house vegetarians appreciate having a jar of cooked beans available. They stuff them into a pita bread sandwich with chopped tomatoes, or other leftovers.
Lasagna is now our favorite special occasion meal, instead of baked ham or roast turkey. At one time it seemed necessary to make two casseroles - meat and meatless. Now I make only one using a hearty spaghetti sauce with onions, peppers, and mushrooms, and enrich the ricotta by stirring three eggs into it.
When the vegetable garden encourages me, I layer either cooked eggplant, spinach, or zucchini with the cheeses and noodles. It's enjoyed all around the table.
In adapting our fare to the changed dietary requirements, we've been nudged out of generations-old eating cliches.