Overheard in a suburban Washington mall Man to a youthful female companion: "Let's go get a hamburger."

Companion: "Can't. Didn't I tell you? I've become a vegetarian."

Startled man: "Lacto-ovo or total?"

Companion: "Huh? I don't know. I gave up red meat, but I eat fish and chicken. What category's that?"

None of the above, according to the accepted definition of "vegetarian." H. Jay Dinishah, president of the North American Vegetarian Society, says, "There are a certain amount of confused people who call themselves vegetarians but are not."

"Confused" or not, those people are changing America's dietary profile. According to a Roper poll conducted last fall, there are almost 6 million "fish and chicken vegetarians" in the United States, in addition to 1.2 million strict vegetarians.

In Roper's sampling of 2,000 people, taken for the McNeil/Lehrer Report, only one half of one percent described themselves as strict vegetarians; two and a half percent as "pretty much" vegetarians; and 17 per cent as "one who eats meat but is careful about how much." Of nonmeat easters, 30 per cent avoid fowl; 19 per cent won't eat fish.

Although over three-quarters of respondents said they eat meat regularly, the Roper figures suggest that there are about three times as many vegetarians (of both types) in this country today as there were in the early 1950s, judging from another poll taken about 25 years ago.

Not surprisingly, officials in various vegetarian societies say their memberships are on the increase. Locally, according to Dick Stafursky of The Vegetarian Society, there are about 150 members. When he joined three years ago there were only 90. Stafursky believes that "a larger percentage are doing it for health or economic reasons than for ethical reasons," than there were five years ago. And in the Washington area, of about a dozen vegetarian restaurants in business two years ago, all but two are still open.

Dinshah says the trend toward vegetarianism "may not be quite as fast as it was a year or two ago, but it certainly hasn't leveled off."

The Roper report confirms these observations. When all the survey respondents were asked to give their major reasons for becoming vegetarians or "pretty much" vegetarians, 56 per cent cited health; 25 per cent, economy; 16 per cent, ethical concerns about killing animals for food; and 11 per cent, the belief that grain will feed more of the world's population when it's eaten as grain than when used to feed livestock.

Two-thirds of the local vegetarian society are "practicing vegetarians," according to Stafursky. The others, who support the society's philosophy, are not quite vegetarian. "That's usually someone who has cut out red meat. Possibly they eat chicken, maybe fish occasionally, or they may be a person who eats red meat once a month because they're visiting at someone's house and don't want to offend them," Stafursky explains.

Vegetarians have the greates trouble during the holidays, Stafursky says. "Thanksgiving dinner are usually a proble" -- although less trouble than they used to be, since "vegetarians are coming out of the closet. In the past, vegetarianism was something you really didn't want to talk about. And now everyone is."

Which, in turn, makes it easier for non-meat eaters to get along in a meat-eating culture. Society appears to be making an effort to accommodate vegetarians.

At first a number of vegetarian restaurants sprang up around the country, more or less to take care of their own. A number of these restaurants have closed, but not because there are fewer vegetarians today, according to Dinshah:

"The main problem is a lot of young people getting out of college are not necessarily imbued with a lot of experience or business sense. It's more important to have restaurant experience than vegetarian experience." It isn't easy to make a go of a business "when you are only appealing to five per cent of the population," he adds.

A local restaurant critic has another theory. She thinks the closing of one Washington vegetarian restaurant and the consolidation of another is due to the conventional restaurants' willingness to accommodate vegetarians along with their "straight" dinner companions. With the exception of French and American restaurants, she says, most establishments offer at least one dish a vegetarian can eat.

Some vegetarian restaurants have compromised in order to survive, and new breeds have arisen. The Kalorama Cafe is a natural food restaurant that serves neither meat or fowl along with its vegetarian cuisine. (It does serve fish.) The East West, "a natural foods restaurant" with three locations in New York City, describes itself as serving "traditional vegetarian and fish cuisine."

A press release says the owner "developed a restaurant that would serve the entire community good and flavorful food instead of just appealing to a select few who care only about health and not taste... The East West is not fanatical."

It can't be and still survive.

That's exactly what June Kirkwood found out in her Aspen, Colo. restaurant, The Little Kitchen. Too many people were turned off by the word "macrobiotic" in her advertising, so she's taken it out. "Instead we're putting natural and organic on our menu and in our advertising, even though those words have been misunderstood and overused."

What's more, The Little Kitchen now has a beer and wine license. "We've had to make a lot of compromises in order to stay in business. It bothered me at first," Kirkwood says, "but it doesn't any more because I feel what we're doing is worth doing. We've made so many changes, but I feel it's tough if they can't eat one meal without a glass of wine.

"But we are not putting other people's eating trips down. We are not out to convert the world. We just want to offer an alternative."

Dinshah agrees with Stafursky that trying to make converts of carnivores creates resentment: "To a cer tain degree, it's true that proselytizers have turned off people who are vegetarians for health reasons." He admits vegetarians have done themselves "some harm by some of our more strident literature." Both say there i s less of that today than there used to be.

Those who have become vegetarians for health reasons seem to have forced the establishment health community into grudging acknowledgement that vegetarian diets, especially the lacto-ovo variety, are perfectly safe. There is some epidemiological evidence that vegetarian diets are even healthier than diets of meat-eaters. Studies of Seventh Day Adventists, most of whom are vegetarians, shoaw a much lower incidence of heart disease compared to the population at large. But other factors may enter into this Seventh Day Adventists are not supposed to smoke, drink intoxicating beverages, coffee or tea either.

Whatever their reasons, the increase in strict or "fish and chicken vegetarians" is particularly on the increase among the young, according to Dinshah. What affect this change in eating patterns may have on the agricultural economy is a problem that some futurists have already begun to ponder.

Some vegetarian recipes:

Joe's Special, on which Vegetarian Joe is based, made its way from San Francisco to the East Coast several years ago. It's a mixture of ground beef, eggs and spinach. According to Mary Etta Moose of the Washington Square Bar & Grill, this is how Joe's Special came into being:

"One dark and stormy night, nEw Joes (an extant old San Francisco institution, open 24 hours, and attracting the brightest night life) sold out of every dish when a ravenous celebrity charmed the cook into tossing whatever he could find into a pun and the Joe was born - spinach, hamburger, garlic, onion and egg."

Describing how the Vegetarian Joe came into existence, Moose writers: "We discovered that sans hamburger, plus seasonal vegetables, it becomes an adaptable dish: also a good way to introduce vegetables into breakfast, or to feed a gathering.

The Washington Square Bar & Grill is a San Francisco hangout for journalists, who will be served many variations on the vegetarian versions, depending on what vegetables are available. This is one version we've adapted.

VEGETARIAN JOE (2 small servings) 8 ounces thickly sliced or coarsely chopped mixture of carrots, green peppers and a few cherry tomatoes left whole 4 ounces mixture of chopped red onion, white onion and 1 scallion 2 tablespoons olive oil 1 clove crushed or pressed garlie 4 ounces fresh spinach 4 ounces coarsely chopped mushrooms 3 eggs 1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley 1/2 teaspoon chopped chives 1/4 teaspoon dried oregano Few grinds fresh black pepper 1/2 cup freshly grated sharp Italian cheese

Blanch the carrots and green peppers until they are crisply tender. Drain immediately and set aside. Meanwhile, saute the mixture of onions in hot oil until soft. Add garlic and stir. Stir in spinach. Stir in mushrooms. Beat eggs lightly with parsley, chives, oregano, pepper and cheese.

Stir in blanched vegetables and mix. Then pour in egg mixture and cook, stirring gently, until egg mixture is set. Serve immeditely, decorating top with the cherry tomatoes.

Vegetarian fare is popular at The Golden Door in Escenado, Calif. Here are two recipes from Chef Michael Stroot.

MICHEL STROOT'S EGGPLANT AND WALNUTS

(2 servings) 4 tablespoons olive oil 2 teaspoons minced garlic 1 medium onion, coarsely chopped 1/2 pound fresh mushrooms 1 1/4 pounds eggplant, pared and coarsely diced Salt 2 teaspoons curry 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom 3 large fresh tomatoes, peeled and diced or 1 1/2 cups canned tomatoes, coarsely chopped 2 tablespoons lemon juice 4 tablespoons parsley 3/4 cup chopped walnuts

Heat 1 tablespoon oil in heavy pot. Add garlic and onions and saute until soft. Stir with wood spoon. Add mushrooms and cook, covered, or 3r 4 minutes at a simmer. Add eggplant with salt, curry and cardamom. Cook over medium-low heat, covered, simmering, for 5 to 10 minutes, or until cooked through. Stir once. Stir in tomatoes and heat through. Add lemon juice, remaining oil, parsley and walnuts and heat through.

Serve hot or cold.

MICHEL STROOT'S ZUCCHINI SPINACH FRITTATA

(4 to 6 servings) 3 cups grated zucchini 1 tablespoon seasoned sea salt 3/4 cup cooked spinach, thoroughly drained 1 teaspoon thyme 1 tablespoon grated parmesan cheese 1/2 teaspoon pepper 2 tablespoons chopped chives 4 whole eggs 2 egg whites 1/2 cup low fat milk 2 teaspoons olive oil 2 teaspoons minced garlic 1 medium onion, dicted 1 cup sliced mushrooms 6 artichoke hearts, drained 3 ounces sliced mozzarella cheese

In large bowl grate zucchini and add sesoned salt. Mix well and let stand about 30 minutes. Drain off liquid that accumulates and mix zucchini with spinach. Add thyme, parmesan, pepper and chives and mix well.

In a separate bowl beat whole eggs and egg whites and stir into spinach mixture with milk.

Using a 9-inch skillet, saute garlic and onion in oil until onion is soft. Add mushrooms and stir with wooden spoon. Cook until vegetables are tender. Add artichoke hearts and heat through.

Pour spinach mixture into the pan and let it bubble for a couple of minutes. Cover with sliced cheese and bake at 375 degrees for 45 to 50 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to sit for about 5 minutes. Serve with tomato sauce.

TOMATO SAUCE 2 teaspoons chopped garlic 2 tablespoons chopped shallots 1 teaspoon olive oil 4 medium ripe, peeled tomatoes 1 small bay leaf 2 teaspoons dried basil or 1 tablespoon fresh basil 1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper Seasoned sea salt to taste 2 tablespoons chopped chives and/or fresh basil

In shallow pan saute garlic and shallots in hot oil for a couple of minutes. Ad tomatoes, bay leaf, basil, pepper and salt to taste. Cover and simmer for 5 minutes, stirring once with wooden spoon. Cook, uncovered, another 10 to 15 minutes, until sauce thickens. Add chopped chives and/or chopped basil just before serving. Serve over Frittata.

POTATO-BEAN SOUP - STEW (4 or 5 main dish servings) 1/2 cup dry navy or pea beans 2 tablespoons vegetable oil 1 large onion, chopped 6 cups chicken, beef or vegetable bouillon or stock 1/2 teaspoon marjoram 3 medium potatoes (1 pound), diced 1 cup diced red apple 1 cup diced ripe pear 1/4 cup chopped parsley Salt and pepper to state

Soak beans overnight in plenty of water. In large pot, saulte oinion in oil 5 minutes over medium heat. Add bouillon and drained beans. Bring to boil; reduce heat and simmer 30 minutes. Add potatoes; continue to simmer 20 minutes. Add apple and pear; continue to simmer about 20 minutes, until beans, apple and pear are tender. Stir in parsley, pepper and salt and serve.

Good leftover, too.

There are a lot of components to the salad, adapted from one served at the Little Kitchen, that follows, any one of which can be served alone. Because there are several parts to it, make it for at least four people.

LITTLE KITCHEN'S SUPER SALAD (8 servings) Humus guacamole Tabbouleh Herbed tofu Salsa Alfalfa sprouts Greens Grated vegetables such as beets, carrots, zucchini

Arrange Scoops of humus, guacamole, tabbouleh and tofu on greens. Decorate with grated vegetables; sprinke on sprouts and serve with salsa and whole wheat pita.

HUMUS 1 cup garbanzo beans 2 tablespoons sesame tahini 5 teaspoons lemon juice 1/4 teaspoon tamari 2 cloves minced garlic 1/2 scant teaspoon cumin 1/2 teaspoon turmeric 1 teaspoon minced parsley

Soak garbanzo beans overnight in plenty of water. Drain and simmer beans in 5 cups water, uncovered, for about 2 hours. Stir occasionally and add water as needed to keep beans covered. When benas are tender, puree in blender, using 2 cups of cooking liquid. Add remaining ingredients and chill.

GUACAMOLE 4 ripe avocados 4 teaspoons lemon juice 2 large cloves garlic, minced 4 teaspons tamari

Mash or process in food processor avocados, mixing in lemon juice, garlic and tamari. Chill and serve.

HERBED TOFU 1 pound tofu 1 teaspoon powdered kelp 1 teaspoon basil 1 teaspoon dillweed 1 small clove garlic, minced 1 teaspoon curry 2 tablespoons tamari 1 tablespoon lemon juice 2 sprigs parsley, chopped

Mash or process toful in food processor with all of the seasonings. Chill and serve.

TABBOULEH 1 cup bulgur (cracked wheat) 3 medium tomatoes, chopped 1 bunch green onions, chopped 3 cups chopped parsley 1/4 cup fresh mint, chopped 1/2 cup olive oil 4 to 6 tablespoons lemon juice salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Wash bulgur; cover with hot water and allow to stand for 30 minutes. Drain thoroughly and then squeeze dry with hands. Chop the vegetables and mix together. Beat in oil, lemon jice, salt and pepper and mix with bulgur until well blended. Chill.

SALSA 5 tomatoes 1/2 green pepper 1/2 bunch green onions 1 teaspoon basil 1 tablespoon vinegar 1 clove garlic, minced Pinch cayenne

Chop the tomatoes, pepper and onions together. Stir in the remaining ingredients. Chill.

This dough makes pita, the flat Middle Eastern bread and tortilla. The dough makes a heavy, thick, crunchy bread.

WHOLE WHEAT FLAT BREADS

(Makes about 12 pita) 2 1/2 cups warm water 1 package active dry yeast 2 cups finely grated carrots 1/2 tablespoon salt 6 or 7 cups whole wheat flour Cornmeal

Dissolve the yeast in the water. Stir in the grated carrots and salt. Stir in about 4 or 5 cups flour until dough cannot be stirred with spoon any more. Continue adding flour until soft dough, which is kneadable on well-floured board. But do not add too much flour or dough will become too stiff to knead. Knead 5 to 10 minutes, until smooth.

To make pita, pull off a hunk of dough the size of a large lemon. Roll dough into ball and press into cornmeal on both sides. Roll out into circle 1/4 inch thick. Allow to rest about 20 minutes before baking. Bake at 450 degrees until pita are browned and puffy, 10 to 15 minutes.

To make tortilla: Pull off a piece of dough the size of a golf ball. Roll out on cornmeal covered board into a very, very thin circle and place on a hot heavy skillet, without oil, and cook a few minutes on one side, until bottom begins to brown. Turn and cook on second side for a minute. Tortillas should be soft.

LITTLE KITCHEN MEXIPIZZA

Sprinkle grated Monterey Jack or Meunster cheese on top of tortilla and run under broiler until cheese is melted. Top with sliced fresh mushrooms and salsa (see recipe above) and serve immediately.