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Vegetable chic. The quest for freshness has given meatless dishes an upscale new look

Half the family pickets McDonald's. The other half eats there. This was the vegetarian scene a few years ago. Today, there's a new approach to the subject of vegetarianism which has little to do with philosophy. Basically, it's an emphasis on fresh vegetables, and it's about time. Vegetables have long had status problems, which were only slightly eased by Popeye's heroics with canned spinach.

Today's vegetarian dishes are more upscale, more satisfying, and more attractive. Not that a vegetarian eggroll or a pizza layered with four kinds of cheese will ever replace meat and potatoes, but more and more restaurants are listing vegetable dishes as a main course, not just as an added side dish or garnish. These vegetarian main dishes are cropping up as attractive and filling alternatives to traditional dinners of pork, beef, and even poultry and fish.

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Vegetarian cookbooks are also changing, adding style and color as well as flavor to the grains, beans, and tofu plates of the early days. Some say vegetarian food has become ``gourmet,'' but most chefs say simply that there are more interesting dishes made with vegetarian foods today, widening the choice.

David Cohlmeyer, a Toronto cooking instructor and vegetarian caterer who has also written a cookbook - ``The Vegetarian Chef'' (Woodbridge Press, $7.95) - says many of his customers ask how to get more flavor in vegetarian meals cooked at home. His answer: ``Take time to consider carefully all the ingredients you're using. Make sure you're using the freshest you can find.

``Take one of the most common refined foods - cooking oil,'' he says. ``If your corn oil doesn't smell like corn on the cob or your peanut oil like freshly roasted peanuts, chances are they're refined.''

Other suggestions from Mr. Cohlmeyer:

Try exploring the possibilities available from unrefined (cold-pressed) oils to make your meatless foods taste more exciting. Olive oil is the most readily available, but most natural food stores carry other kinds. They may cost more, but you will probably use less. Experiment with walnut oil in a Belgian endive salad and palm oil in an African stew.

Recipes are not sacred. Feel free to substitute cayenne for black or white pepper, tamari for soy sauce, or another starch for arrowroot. Some people prefer the mildly bitter flavor of sea salt, but the ordinary kind will do.

Unsalted or sweet butter is more versatile and usually fresher than salted, but you can substitute oil - except in pastries.

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Try to find oranges and lemons without dyes or waxes or fungicides, if you're planning to use the peel for zest.

Make an effort to use ingredients that have been processed as little as possible. Even minimal processing, canning, drying, or freezing, results in considerable loss of flavor.

``Vegetarian cooking needs style,'' says British columnist Colin Spencer. Author of ``The New Vegetarian Cooking'' (Viking, $24.95), he believes that ``there is no menu more lively, more enlightening than a vegetarian one.'' In his cookbook, Mr. Spencer covers the basic elements of vegetarianism with a sequence of full-color photographs identifying all the main foods as well as the new exotic ones used in vegetarian cooking. He also chooses special gourmet dishes for menus for particular occasions.

For a summer dinner, he recommends chilled tomato-basil soup served with cheese brioche, terrine verte, salad Ni,coise, Russian salad, cold wild rice, and a glazed apple tart with sour cream.

``Try to create a balance between raw and cooked, crunchy and soft, savoury and sweet, crisp and fluid,'' he says.

The following recipes are from Mr. Spencer's book, and were suggested by English food writer Claudia Roden for a midsummer picnic. Carrot and Sweet Potato Dip 1 pound carrots, peeled 1 pound sweet potatoes, peeled 3 garlic cloves, crushed 2 teaspoons cumin 1 teaspoon cinnamon 4 tablespoons olive oil 3 tablespoons wine vinegar

Boil carrots and sweet potatoes in salted water until soft. Drain, then pur'ee with remaining ingredients. Spinach Omelet 1 medium onion, finely chopped 3 tablespoons oil 1 1/2 pound spinach, washed, drained, and shredded Seasoning to taste Pinch of nutmeg 3 tomatoes, peeled and chopped 6 eggs, lightly beaten

Fry onion in oil until golden. Add spinach, seasonings, nutmeg, and tomatoes and stir until spinach wilts. Mix eggs in gently and cook, covered, over low heat about 10 to 15 minutes until they set. Grill or broil to dry the top. Serve. Lentils and Rice 2 cups green or brown lentils, soaked 1 hour, then rinsed 1 1/4 cups long grain rice Seasoning to taste 1 1/2 pound onions, halved, thinly sliced 2/3 cup olive oil

Bring lentils to boil in about 33/4 cups water. Simmer until nearly tender. Add rice and seasoning and cook covered about 15 minutes until rice is done, adding more water if necessary. Fry onion in a little of the oil until practically caramalized. Stir this into rice and add remaining oil. Exotic Fruit Salad 1 avocado, peeled, cubed 1 papaya, peeled, seeded, cubed 1/2 melon, peeled, cubed 2 kiwi fruits, peeled, sliced 4 tablespoons olive oil Seasoning to taste Small bunch chives, finely chopped Few mint sprigs, finely chopped

Combine fruits. Dress with lemon juice, olive oil, seasonings, and chopped fruits. Yogurt Drink 2 1/2 cups plain yogurt 1 1/2 cups water Salt, optional Few mint sprigs Several ice lumps

Beat yogurt in a jug, then whisk in water and a little salt if you like. Add mint and ice.

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