Food is about so much more than nutrition—it’s one of the most personal expressions of our cultures, values, and traditions. Our series, Behind the Recipe, profiles a different healthy cook every month to explore the personal, untold stories of their favorite dishes. This month, Rican Vegan creator Desiree Rodriguez shares how she mastered a vegan pork recipe delicious to win over her entire family—including her grandma.
Growing up in a Puerto Rican family, meat was central to almost all the meals my mom and grandma would cook. Normally, we would have chicken or beef, but if it was a special occasion, there would always be pork—slow-roasted until it's so tender it practically melts on your tongue. When Thanksgiving and Christmas rolled around, the holiday meal spread would include both turkey and pork. And on the rare occasions where we chose just one meat, it was always pork.
As much as I loved these traditional family dishes so much, I decided to cut meat out of my life completely in 2013. I was experiencing some minor health issues, including skin rashes. My dermatologist prescribed me a medicine to help with the symptoms, but it still didn't treat the root issue and the rashes kept coming back. I decided to go vegan for a short period of time just to see if it made a difference. At the time, I had just watched some documentaries on Netflix that made pressing pause on meat sound like a good idea. So, I decided to give it a try.
I cut out more animal products little by little, and over the following months, I started to feel more energized and my skin rashes went away. Now I won't say that going vegan is right for everyone, but for me personally, it made me feel my best. So, I decided to stick with it.
I'm not going to lie, becoming a vegan was not easy—especially because I love traditional Puerto Rican food so much. In the beginning, all I really ate was salad because I wasn't sure how to make vegan versions of my favorite meals. Unsurprisingly, I grew tired of salads pretty quickly, and that's when I decided that I would try my best to recreate my favorite dishes with a vegan spin. Dairy-free arroz con dulce, mushroom-based ceviche, vegan steak and eggs... Over time, I mastered more and more dishes that I couldn't believe tasted just as delicious without animal products whatsoever. Even my family—none of whom are vegan—thought they tasted incredible. But I still had yet to perfect one of my favorites: pork.
As I mentioned, pork is a "special occasion" food, so getting it right was really important. That's why I decided to try making a vegan version for just myself first—lower stakes. I had heard that jackfruit was a good substitute for pulled meat because of the texture, so I decided to give it a try. I knew the spices would especially be important, so I called my mom and asked her what she used when she made pork dishes. She gave me a short list: garlic, oregano, onion powder, salt, pepper, and adobo.
Armed with my canned jackfruit and spices, I got to work. First, I marinated the jackfruit, giving it plenty of time to really absorb the spices. Then, I cooked it in the oven for about half an hour. When I pulled the tray out of the oven, the aroma filled me with hope—it certainly smelled like pork. And you know what, it really looked like it too! I didn't even wait until it cooled completely before sticking a fork in to give it a try. As I bit into the tender chunks, I was surprised at just how meat-like it tasted. Jackfruit, who knew! It certainly passed my taste test, but what about my family?
The next time I made the vegan pork, I had my whole family try it—including my mom and grandma, who are the real cooks in the family. Everyone agreed that it tasted delicious. I started making the vegan pork on holidays, just like when we would have traditional pork when I was growing up, and used any leftovers to make pulled "pork" sandwiches served with rice and beans.
Here's another cool thing about using jackfruit: it takes a lot less time to cook than actual meat. When you're following the recipe at home, be mindful to make sure the jackfruit doesn't dry out too much while cooking in the oven; you may want to check on it a few times throughout the 35 minute cook time to make sure it stays juicy and tender. Other than that, this recipe is truly easy to master.
By the way, because it is so simple to make and certainly more nutrient-packed than pork, there's no need to reserve this dish for special occasions. You can make it whenever the craving hits. And trust me, your whole family will approve—yes, even if they are hardcore meat lovers.
Vegan pernil recipe (roasted pork)
2 cans young jackfruit
1 cup vegetable broth
5-6 tsp garlic cloves minced
1/2 teaspoon oregano
1 tsp adobo
1/2 tsp onion powder
1/4 tsp salt
1/8 tsp black pepper
1. Drain the jackfruit from the can and rinse the off brine.
2. Place the marinade and jackfruit pieces in a plastic bag and seal the bag.
3. Marinate the jackfruit overnight in the refrigerator.
4. Preheat oven to 400°F.
5. Pour the jackfruit chunks and marinade onto a baking dish.
6. Place in the oven and bake for 35 minutes or until fork-tender stirring halfway to prevent the pieces from drying out.
7. Remove from the oven and let it sit for five minutes
8. Serve with your favorite side dish or add it to a sandwich.
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