S4EP6: We can all be Vegan ft. Coco Verde

Hi ºF-TV family!

I hope you're enjoying your summer so far and staying safe and healthy out there! We are 5 months into trying to survive this global pandemic #COVID19 and I feel like half the country has adjusted to this new normal and half the country is rebelling in every way possible. I still can't believe that wearing a mask these days is considered a political statement. Nonetheless, although some of us have adjusted to this new normal, I think we're all still worried about the future. There is undoubtedly so many unanswered questions, ongoing stresses and a fear of a second Corona Virus wave. Its exhausting and emotional and I am sending positive vibes and prayers your way friends.

July is Minority Mental Health Awareness Month and this summer I decided to approach this season focusing more on my health and diet. On June 1st, I made the goal of trying a Vegan diet for 30 days! A Vegan is a person who does not eat or use animal products. It went so well, I decided to extend my original goal and now I've been Vegan for 50 days and counting! Yay! BUT it wasn't all the way easy. Its been a little challenging and everyday I'm learning more about Veganism, food and what's truly nutritious for my body. Before I dive deeper into what the Vegan journey has taught me so far and how our extraordinary guests this month helped me along the way, I'd liked to give you a brief history of my relationship with food.

I am a foodie. I love the taste of fresh food. I love experimenting with recipes and I love watching food competition shows (my favorites are Netflix's Nailed It & The Food Network's Chopped). In my childhood I developed many food allergies including nuts, bananas and shellfish. I gotten used to that and life is still great! However, after I turned 23, my relationship with food started changing. I noticed that fried foods I use to enjoy, made my belly hurt, especially if I ate late at night (a behavior I picked up as a college student). By age 26, I became lactose intolerant. This was hard to accept at first because dairy was apart of my daily diet. I used to drink a cup of milk per day, sometimes more. I would have been a perfect poster kid for the 'Got Milk' campaign. By 27, I became accustomed to the new changes of my diet but then I watched the Netflix's documentary, 'What the Health.' To some, this documentary was seen as a marketing tool for Veganism and backlash against the meat industry. Despite the criticism, one can't deny the many unfortunate truths it conveyed. It was appalling to learn how dark the food industry can be and how gaining profit often is more important than people's lives and their well being. It was extremely sad to see the effects of the meat industry on marginalized communities across the U.S.A., the environment and our animals. At the time I was convinced to be a Vegan but I wasn't fully ready.

Before COVID19, my days were busy between multiple jobs and hobbies. To thrive, I truly picked up the lifestyle of eating like a King for breakfast with big meals. When I say BIG, I mean I literally would cook myself a whole left menu of IHOP in the mornings and it was HEAVY in meat protein. Rather it was chicken, sausage, fish and sometimes turkey for breakfast, I ate a lot of meat and I wouldn't feel full unless I had meat. Today that's changed because I have been a happy Vegan for almost 2 months and counting. I truly love it so far but trying to make meals VEGAN is a little hard. You need to read labels. You need to know how and where things are made and sometimes you get so overwhelmed that you want to rebel and eat a burger. I however am surprisingly good at 30 day challenges so when I made the commitment to try to be Vegan for 30 days, I was determined to find resources that could help me.

Discovering Coco Verde Vegan was a major blessing! A colleague of mine told me about this amazing family business and I became an instant fan! Coco Verde Vegan created by the beautiful couple Ivannoe Rodriguez-Sierra & Cecilia Flores-Rodriguez, cook healthy delicious Vegan meals with a Latin twist. Both owners families are from the Dominican Republic and they have successfully transformed traditional Dominican dishes and other Latinx recipes into a Vegan catering company and blog.

So what inspired them to be Vegan? The birth of their daughter, Ivanna! Being new parents is tough and when you're short on time, you tend to grab food that is convenient like fast food or processed food. "We came to a moment of realization that Ivanna is watching us," says proud father Ivannoe. So they made the decision together to switch to a plant based diet and soon Cecilia started doing research on healthier options and Vegan recipes. "When she tried to get Latino Vegan food, she noticed that there weren't many options. Maybe a few tacos and burritos but that was it" explains Ivannoe. Like most millennials I know, they decided to create their own lane and Coco Verde Vegan was born!

It wasn't easy in the beginning. As an ultra marathon trainer, Cecilia explains that switching to a plant based diet was tough at first but her cousin, who's a Vegan body builder, inspired her to try. Within a few weeks, she noticed that she had way more energy, endurance and strength. "It actually turned out to be a really positive thing for my health journey." Ivannoe explains that it was also challenging in the beginning as a trained Chef to shift towards cooking Vegan meals. "When we started experimenting with different recipes, to Veganize it, my mind would be blown." He says that after awhile of experimenting recipes together, they began to create dishes that not only tasted good but felt familiar. "There was so much color. Every single Vegan dish felt alive."

Recreating classic Dominican dishes into Vegan meals can feel like an impossible or unwanted task to some. There's that fear of sacrificing flavor and destroying tradition but the chefs found the loophole. They reimagined how they can transform a classic Dominican dish into a Vegan dish that still tastes like home by incorporating the same seasonings into their Latinx recipes and substituting ingredients with Vegan ingredients such as lentils, vegetables, fruit, grains, beans, seeds and nuts. Brilliant! Cecilia mentioned recreating a classic pastelito (a meat pastry) and instead of using beef, chicken or fish, they substituted it with lentils or veggies BUT the flavor remains the same because of the classic seasoning. This familiarity of flavors is what makes this a delicious Vegan option that still tastes like mama made it.

"For us it was really about preserving that flavor, preserving that tradition and that authenticity."

~Coco Verde Vegan

Coco Verde Vegan is more than just a catering company but a family business that has pride in their heritage and wants to empower Black & Brown communities to nourish themselves with healthier food. "The American Diabetes Association & The American Heart Association both endorse Vegan & plant-based diets to mitigate the effects of heart disease and diabetes on the body, " explains Cecilia. Black & Latinx communities primarily experience the complications of Diabetes and Heart Disease because of many social and political factors such as poverty, food accessibility and structural inequities. "It felt kind of selfish for us to be creating and not sharing recipes," says Cecilia. As a Public Health Researcher & PhD student in Social Policy, Cecilia is very passionate about the health and wellness of her community. "I'm very much focused on health equity and the intersections of racism and the embodiment effect and how that plays out in health outcomes." Creating Coco Verde Vegan has allowed her and her husband to not only create a wonderful relationship with food for their daughter but also create meals for their customers that can truly improve their health and well being. Now that's great leadership!

As I stated previously, the Netflix's documentary 'What the Health' had a lot of mixed reactions from the community when it first premiered. Some people were inspired to eliminate animal products in their diet and others took this as a form of propaganda. Both standpoints make sense considering that for many cultures, meat is essential in their diets. Starting a Latin Vegan catering business when many people are either skeptical or uninformed about Veganism could have unmotivated other entrepreneurs to proceed with this idea but Ivannoe and Cecilia had a bigger vision. "It was a matter of changing the perspective of people," says Ivannoe. Both chefs often do cooking demonstrations to show people how they can create these Vegan Dominican dishes and it sparks a curiosity in people wanting to try dishes and learn more.

"[They] come to a realization that this is good stuff! It's not only us [who think so)." Trying a Vegan lifestyle as Cecilia brilliantly conveyed in our interview is "such a personal journey and it happens when it's suppose to happen." I mimic that. I am so happy I've had the chance to explore Veganism now and my body thanks me for it everyday. Before the birth of Coco Verde Vegan, there was no blueprint on creating Vegan Dominican/Latinx dishes. Coco Verde Vegan has truly given many aspiring Vegans a chance to be introduced to Latinx Veganism or reconnect with their Latinx roots through vegan food.

Worried about finding ingredients? The good thing is that many of ingredients you may see in Vegan dishes can be found at your local grocery stores. "It's becoming so much more mainstream that it's everywhere. It's becoming more accessible than it was before," explains Cecilia. And she's right! Market Basket, Trader Joes, Whole Foods, Farmers Markets, Asian markets, some Wholesale Food stores like BJs, carry Vegan products. One tip to remember when starting the Vegan journey is that some days you may slip. That's totally okay. Keep trying. "Food is such a comfort for many of us" says Cecilia. Especially in these times, we all got some cheat meal that makes us feel at ease. However its important to know how to balance cheat meals into your diet. "I would never be like don't ever eat chips or don't ever eat cupcakes, but I think just being able to find that balance is important. Being able to listen to your body and trust what your body is really communicating with you" says Cecilia, is what will allow you to thrive in your own unique food journey. For me, I balance my Vegan diet by allowing myself to have one cheat meal a week. There's been some weeks when I didn't need it and others when I was VERY grateful to have it. Nonetheless, be patient and kind to yourself.

Learn how to read a nutrition label.

For new Vegans or those who are interested in trying, Cecilia says "Every meal counts. So even if you're trying and you're still not there, don't be so hard on yourself, especially in the beginning." She says that when she started her Vegan journey, she would pick out a few Vegan recipes to try that really excited her. Ivannoe added that some advice they got from their Vegan friend is that "you need to be a really bad Vegan, in order to become a good Vegan." So don't be afraid of trial & error. Keep a journal (that's what I do). Have an accountability partner. Look up exciting recipes. Don't give up and again don't be hard on yourself. Ivannoe reassures us to, "take it one meal at a time." The fact that you're trying to improve your health is already commendable.

One of the things I've been worried about is how our health will look like post Covid19. In the beginning of the pandemic, we were all forced to stay indoors. Many of us were not only binge watching Netflix at home but also binge eating. As we know, food is medicine and a source of therapy. The Vegan journey has really improved my health thus far and with the ongoing high levels of stress due to COVID19, I think we owe it to ourselves to fuel our bodies with food that's better for us without sacrificing flavor. I encourage you my audience to try being Vegan for a week and let us know how you feel. YOU CAN DO IT!

In this episode, Cecilia also shows us how to make Sofrito! Sofrito is a seasoning blend that can be used on a variety of dishes ranging from soups, to pots of rice. With the unfortunate Goya controversy, it's really important for us to know how to blend our own spices, especially for Vegan recipes. I used Sofrito this week to make a Vegan Crunch Wrap Supreme, Vegan Quesadilla and a Vegan Meat Patty.

Watch our FULL episode with Coco Verde Vegan on our YouTube channel here. Cecilia and Ivannoe dispel common myths about Veganism, share some more great advice for newbies and some exciting news about the expansion of services they'll be offering to their clients such as individual meal plans and a bigger variety of Vegan birthday cake flavors. YUM!

Follow and support them on all social media platforms @cocoverdevegan. Visit their website and blog at www.cocoverdevegan.com and feel free to contact them for catering services at (978) 338-3631 or via email at info@cocoverdevegan.com.

I know all of us eat to survive but we must also eat to thrive. To nourish and strengthen our bodies, to preserve our health, to honor our culture & heritage and to protect our lineage. 2020 has reminded us we're still on the marathon of fighting for social change and true justice for all. We won't be brave soldiers in the fight against injustice unless we take care of ourselves first. Eat well and be kind to your body friends.

Our next episode premieres Thursday, August 27th @ 8:30pm on the Boston Neighborhood Network (Comcast 23, RCN 83 & Verizon 1960). Wishing you always peace and love.

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