Vegan Caribbean Chef

Jamila Crawford Pécou at home in Atlanta.

“My mother is from the Dominican Republic, my father is from Florida, and I grew up in New York — all of which has informed and helped shape a diverse palate,” the Atlanta-based vegan chef Jamila Crawford Pécou tells LAIKA. Along with her vegan daughters Sigele and Tsehai, she is among the roster of dynamic women profiled in our Haven Issue. Crawford Pécou, who has cooked for the likes of Erykah Badu and Alicia Silverstone and runs the lifestyle brand Earthcandy, has long drawn on her heritage for inspiration. Much like her own eclectic background, the Dominican Republic and its diaspora is a rich tapestry of cultures and traditions. With her cooking, Crawford Pécou pays homage to her Caribbean roots; and by living a full life — immersed in travel, art and community — she leads by example. Here, the culinary maven talks to LAIKA about her heritage, what empowers her and her goals for the new year, and shares her recipes for two celebratory Dominican staples.

How would you describe Dominican cuisine and what makes it so well-suited to plant-based cooking?
Dominican cuisine is a combination of Spanish, indigenous Taino and African influences. A simple way to think of it is Caribbean food with a Spanish flair. It’s a crossroads of foods and flavors that have been passed down from my grandmothers by word-of-mouth or simply by observation. Though heavily animal-based, Dominican cuisine would not be complete without the likes of mangú (mashed plantain), maduros (fried ripe plantain), arroz con habichuela (rice and beans) and cassava bread. Just this past summer, I traveled to the Dominican Republic with my family and had no problems as a vegan. As veganism becomes more and more popular, many cultures have become, at the very least, vegan-friendly.

What would you say to someone who is resistant to veganism because they feel beholden to certain traditions?
A lot can be said about the dangers of “comfort zones”. Though they provide a sense of security and certainty, they also limit your ability to experience the world. Embracing veganism doesn’t have to mean you’re “losing something.” In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Good food is good food, it’s as simple as that. I try to make food that you will enjoy, so much so you’ll forget that it’s vegan!

How did you go about veganizing your family recipes?
Veganizing recipes can be as simple as substituting a soy, almond or coconut milk for cow’s milk, or taking extra effort to ferment a nut cheese with probiotics to improve the texture and flavor — so there is some trial and error. When I first became vegan over 20 years ago things were a bit more complicated because there weren’t as many vegan alternatives available in mainstream grocery stores. So I followed the “keep it simple” rule by starting with what I knew — recipes I learned from my mother and grandmother — and switched out things like dairy or meat with comparable vegan substitutes. Empanadas are a Dominican staple, traditionally prepared with ground beef, but with so many great soy-free, gluten-free options on the market now, I can now easily substitute in a ground meatless, et voila!

vegan black family laika magazine

Jamila (center) with daughters Sigele (left) and Tsehai, whom she raised vegan since birth. Photo by Valheria Rocha for LAIKA.

What makes you feel empowered as a woman in the male-dominated food industry, and how do you cultivate that strength and self-reliance in your daughters?
Empowerment comes from confidence, and I take pride in knowing that no one can do what I do quite like I can. Despite the culinary profession being dominated by men, women like me, my mother and grandmothers, have always provided, cared and nurtured through cooking. It is a legacy as old as humanity. For every male chef or culinary professional, there is a mom or grandmother who helped spark his love for cooking. I try always to lead by example where my daughters are concerned. My daughters have not only inspired the woman I’ve become, but through watching them actualize their own goals and aspirations, I find myself learning as much from them as they from me.

Can you share your insights on goal-setting and what you are envisioning for 2018?
This year I’ve taken photography classes to sharpen my skills, and it’s been very helpful in preparing for my 2018 goals, which include combining my love of food, travel and photography into my lifestyle brand in the form of books, television and social media content. Journaling and vision boards always help me focus on my goals and ideas. I’ve also recently incorporated more meditation into my daily routine, as a means of visualizing successes but also being deliberate and intentional in my actions. My focus in 2018 is “completion,” as I tend to have multiple ideas at once. My road to success will consist of small victories.

In our Issue 7 story “Family Ties,” you mention that your daughters’ paternal grandfather is vegan, which is so amazing! How did that change come about for him?
My daughters’ grandpa became vegan after the birth of my first daughter in the 1990s. Seeing as how their grandmother (his wife) was gung-ho about preparing meatless dishes for her new grandchildren, Papa, as they call him, decided to jump on the vegan bandwagon with them! His favorite is breakfast foods. He loves veggie sausage with stoneground yellow corn grits! At 68, after working for General Motors for over 45 years, he’s finally retired and has a vibrant, youthful spirit that’s inspired by the joy that his granddaughters bring him.

 

Vegan plantain tapas

Plantain Tapas. Photo by Jamila Crawford Pécou.

 

Plantain Tapas

These bite-sized tapas are inspired by my mother, born and raised in the Dominican Republic. Both are sweet, spicy and bold!

Makes about 2 dozen bites

2 very ripe plantains, peeled
Vegetable oil for frying
½ red bell pepper, seeded and sliced
½ orange bell pepper, seeded and sliced
½ cup red onion, sliced
1- 14 oz. can black beans (or 1 cup dried black beans prepared according to package directions)
2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1 teaspoon each sea salt, black pepper and ground cumin
1 bunch (or 1 10 oz. bag) fresh spinach, rinsed
1 dairy-free vegan sour cream
1 bunch scallion, sliced for garnish

Heat enough vegetable oil in a large non-stick pan to cover the bottom — about 1’ deep – over medium heat. Slice plantain into 1/2” thick diagonal slices. Fry lightly until golden brown on each side, using a spatula to flip over. Remove and drain on a paper towel-lined plate.

Saute the red and orange bell peppers and onion over medium-high heat in the oil remaining in the pan used for the plantain — about 5 minutes or until peppers and onion wilt. Add salt and pepper to taste. Remove from pan and set aside in a bowl or plate.

Finally, add spinach to the pan over medium heat with ¼ cup water and stir until bright green and wilted. Remove from heat.

In a medium saucepan, combine beans, garlic, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low. Season with salt, pepper and cumin. Simmer for 5 minutes, remove from heat and set aside.

To assemble: On a serving plate, place plantain slices, then top with spinach, black beans, bell pepper medley, top with a dollop of sour cream and scallion for garnish. Serve immediately.

 

Vegan Caribbean drink

Vegan Coquito. Photo by Jamila Crawford Pécou.

Coquito

My dairy-free Caribbean way of bringing in the New Year!

Serves 2-3

2 cups canned coconut milk
1 cup canned crema de coco (cream of coconut)
½ cup almond milk (or any nut milk)
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
A pinch of ground nutmeg
A pinch of ground cloves
(Optional: for the alcoholic version, add ½ cup of coconut rum)

Combine all ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth, about 3 minutes. Serve over ice, with a light dusting of cinnamon on top! Keeps refrigerated for up to three days.

by Julie Gueraseva

Read more about Jamila and other inspiring women in LAIKA’s Issue Seven, and subscribe to our print or digital edition.