FORGET the bland vegetarian diets of legend. When George and Deborah Eastman sit down for dinner, there may not be meat on their table - but there is flavor, variety, and solidly satisfying meals.As a dinner guest, this reporter sampled Sunshine Burgers (store-bought hamburger look-alikes made of ground sesame seeds, vegetables, and spices), beet greens, corn, a salad, a mildly spicy garlic-flavored seitan (a meat analogue made from wheat gluten) with asparagus, and a thick borscht. A light and delicious fruit-topped tofu "cheesecake" rounded out the meal. As long-time vegetarians who are bringing up their children - one-year-old Serena and Cade, age four - on a plant-based diet, the Eastmans say today there is a wider variety of foods and more possibilities to make creative and tasty dishes. "From the outside looking in, you wonder what you'd prepare," says George Eastman, who is president of the Boston Vegetarian Society. But, he adds, "There're so many other things to eat" in the plant kingdom than in the animal kingdom. Many people wince when they hear the word "vegetarian," thinking tofu (a cheese-like food made from soybeans) and salad are the staples of such a diet. Vegetarians say that is a myth. "I think when people really get into this kind of cooking it's like a discovery. It can be a whole new world," says Vicki Rae Chelf, author of "Cooking with the Right Side of the Brain" (Avery Publishing Group, 1991). Vegetarianism has evolved significantly in the past 20 years, many vegetarians say. A greater variety and availability of products as well as more user-friendly cookbooks are making it easier for people to buy and try vegetarian food. "I think there's been a lot of growth in the last five years ... and definitely a lot of interest by families," says Brian Graff, director of the North American Vegetarian Society. People "go green eat meatless meals - for a number of reasons. Many feel it is more healthful; others believe it is ethically wrong to kill and eat animals. Some are vegetarians for environmental reasons, saying that raising animals for food uses up more resources than plants. Personal taste and religious and economic factors (vegetables are generally cheaper than meat) are other reasons. Vegetarians generally fall into two categories: Those who don't eat meat, poultry, or fish, and vegans, who eat neither animal products nor dairy products and eggs. The Eastmans are vegans. For families or anyone interested in making vegetarian meals, but who are intimidated about how or where to begin, it's not that difficult, say vegetarian cookbook authors, chefs, and families. Quick and good-tasting meals are possible with a little homework and planning.
Begin with ethnic foods "I think a good place to begin is with ethnic foods," says Nava Atlas, author of several vegetarian cookbooks, including "Vegetarian Celebrations" (Little, Brown & Company, 1990) on holiday vegetarian food. "Let's say [a family] really likes tacos or enchiladas," says Ms. Atlas. "There are ways to make those in a meatless way, and if they're eating something they already enjoy very much, it won't be sort of painful to have a meal without meat." She suggests Mexican food with cheese and beans, a Chinese-s tyle stir-fry with tofu, or meatless pasta dishes. Looking through vegetarian cookbooks to see what kind of dishes can be made is also a good way to start, she says. Many books list definitions of unfamiliar foods and give tips on preparation and where to shop. Most supermarkets carry the basic ingredients to get started, although health food stores offer more variety and bulk items. "[Almost] every supermarket carries tofu, dried beans, macaroni, rice, all kinds of fruits and vegetables - there are very few items you need to get at a health-food store," says Carol Coughlin, a registered dietician and vegetarian who has two young children. The diversity of products has grown rapidly, and substitutes for nearly everything abound (hot dogs of tofu, soy cheese, eggless mayonnaise, and fake bacon, for example). There's even ice cream made of rice or soybeans. But can food made out of soybeans or rice really taste good? Ask Ms. Chelf, whose vegetarian husband was brought up eating rich French foods. "Tofu can be used in so many ways that you wouldn't even know it's tofu," she says. "I make wonderful sauces out of the silken tofu and miso [a soybean paste] for pasta which is really delicious, and people think they're eating a rich cream sauce of some sort." Vegetarian food can be gourmet, says Ron Pickarski, a Franciscan Brother and chef whose culinary team won four medals in the 1988 International Culinary Olympics, competing against mainstream chefs.
Not boring or slow His new vegetarian cookbook, "Friendly Foods" (Tenspeed Press, 1991) combines classic French and European Slavic cuisine without meat or dairy products. Recipes include stroganoff, seitan a la Normandie, and calzones. "It's not only eye-appealing and tastes good, it's also nutritionally very good for you," he says. "It dispels the myth that eating natural and healthy needs to be penitential or boring." In addition, many vegetarian meals can be prepared quickly. Atlas, who has a toddler, says "As a mother, I like things that are convenient.... I have to do things that are fairly quick and easy." She frequently uses her toaster oven and microwave for fast feasts. Pasta dishes, pizza pockets made with pita bread, and corn tortillas with mashed beans are common quick meals. Raising children on a vegetarian diet has been relatively easy, says Lois Gilder, who lives in San Francisco with her husband and two children. They have liked vegetarian food and choose meatless meals when in school or with friends. People often charge that a vegetarian diet doesn't provide enough protein. But Ms. Coughlin says, "Most Americans get two to three times what they need" from a meat-based diet. "I think the big thing is you want to have a wide variety of foods." According to the North American Vegetarian Society all vegetarians, including children, should eat fruits, vegetables, leafy greens, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes.