I was born in Mumbai, India and raised on a strict vegetarian diet. I don't recall ever lacking flavor in the food prepared for me. Mind you, sometimes, I used a spicy condiment as a crutch to get through the meal, but everything I ever ate for the first 21 years of my life was vegetarian. Graduate studies brought me to this country in 1987 and a mere two weeks after arriving in the US, one fateful afternoon, a friend treated me to lunch. Unbeknownst to me, I ate my first non-vegetarian food. Yup, you guessed it: "A Whopper with Cheese" at a Burger King near the campus of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, VA. It wasn't long before, out of convenience and with distaste for the vegetarian fare available in most restaurants in the U.S., I began consuming meat. Getting used to seafood took a lot longer. Today, I am a sucker for fresh fish.
As the chef at a restaurant that prides itself in sustainable seafood, artisan meats, and even game, I often find myself questioning the overuse of animal products. Too often, chefs use ingredients like bacon or meat stocks as crutches. One would be hard-pressed to find a Southern recipe which doesn't call for the rendering of some animal fat before the real cooking begins. There are clearly instances when it does make a positive difference and even I would prefer to start that way. My point is this: A basic working knowledge of spices, herbs, layering and extracting flavor can often lead to incredibly deep and sustained flavors. Smoking vegetables, dry toasting spices, using vegetable trimmings for vegetable stock, roasting vegetables, and finishing with fresh herbs are all easy ways to give a predominantly vegetarian dish a punch of flavor without leaning on an animal product for "flavor." Better health and a reduction of animal products whose production is not nearly as planet-friendly anyway are clear benefits. But the greatest benefit of choosing an alternative to using an animal product in the name of flavor is, in fact, ironically, a more focused and developed flavor which actually showcases the vegetables. There is an on-going movement to re-discover and sustain heirloom varieties of grains and vegetables, which is wonderful and must be supported. Let's also re-discover the pure joy of okra without it being in a non-vegetarian gumbo or a Kale Salad without a bacon dressing.
So, my challenge to professionals and amateurs alike is when cooking vegetables, try to avoid leaning on animals as a crutch to infuse flavor. Frankly, the vegetables don't need the abuse.