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Chef Mariela Ramirez, winner of the 2015 Yoga Journal–Natural Gourmet Institute Scholarship, cooks traditional Cuban and Colombian dishes with a creative and healthy twist. Here, she shares how yoga inspired her to become a pro chef and get healthy, plus a nutritious Latin-American feast sure to spice up your summer.
Growing up, Mariela Ramirez ate many meals with ingredients straight from her Cuban grandma’s farm in Miami, Florida. The property was full of tropical fruit trees—avocado, mango, lime, and mamey sapote (a fruit with creamy flesh that tastes similar to papaya). “I’d wake up on weekends and get eggs from the chickens, and my grandma would scramble them with cheese and ham and put it on Cuban toast that my grandfather would buy from a local bakery,” says Ramirez, now 25. Her grandmother would add a tomato-avocado salad and make shakes with mangoes. “So, some of my meals were farm-to-table, but the Cuban version,” she says.
Yet much of the other traditional Cuban and Colombian food Ramirez grew up eating was less healthy: yellow rice flavored with MSG (a sodium-heavy food additive); salty canned beans; and meat that was either fried or covered in thick, savory, high-fat sauce. Not only was obesity prevalent in her family, but Ramirez (who goes by Mari) found herself overindulging in this type of fare when she was stressed. As a result, in high school, after she quit cheerleading, she found herself gaining weight and feeling less flexible. Then a cousin brought her to a yoga class.
“I went in sneakers, completely clueless as to what yoga was,” says Ramirez. “But I loved it. I wasn’t expecting such a soothing and relaxing experience.” Though her practice wavered in high school and college, yoga is now a refuge for her. “I treat yoga as essential to the way I live,” she says. “My body releases endorphins during my practice at Hot Yoga House Miami, and during Savasana I just meditate.” Ramirez says she leaves the studio happy and with a clear mind, and that her practice has helped her develop more self-compassion. “I try not to be so hard on myself when I can’t do what the girl one mat over can do—I go at my own pace,” she says.
After yoga class, Ramirez finds that she applies this kindness to her journey with food and cooking, and she thinks critically about the foods that are nourishing her body and fueling her day—something that started while attending the University of Florida, studying public relations. She began tweaking ingredients in family recipes she’d gotten from her Colombian mom. “I noticed how much sugar and salt were going in, and I decided to make healthy changes,” she says. “The first step was swapping white rice for brown, and it went from there.”
Ramirez began to host dinner parties for friends, who dubbed the gatherings “Mari’s Kitchen.” This evolved into a popular Instagram account, which, after she graduated, morphed into a business cooking Latin-inspired meals for clients (while maintaining a public-relations job). “My goal was to make food healthier and not sacrifice flavor,” she says.
Still, Ramirez struggled with her weight, stress eating and not practicing what she preached. “My PR job was taxing, and I spent long hours prepping meals for clients,” Ramirez recalls. She had no time to focus on exercise or, ironically, her own nutrition, even while helping others to eat better.
By the time Ramirez was 20, both her father and sister had undergone gastric bypass surgery to address obesity. At age 22, Ramirez did a BMI test at the gym that showed she was near the obese range. “I freaked out,” she says. “I didn’t want to have to take drastic measures like my father and sister.” She was also concerned that American Latinos in general are at high risk for obesity—78 percent of Latino adults in the States are overweight or obese, compared with about 67 percent of whites, according to the 2015 State of Obesity report co-sponsored by Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. So Ramirez renewed her focus on healthy eating and rebooted her yoga practice. During one particular hot yoga class in 2013 she was asked to set an intention, and she dedicated her practice to healing her troubled relationship with food. “I made an oath to myself to not give up,” she says. “I’ve lost nearly 30 pounds, and I feel energized and centered.”
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But despite her successes, Ramirez felt like she’d hit a career plateau. She came across an essay contest for a $15,00 scholarship to the Natural Gourmet Institute for Health & Culinary Arts’ Chef’s Training Program in 2015, co-sponsored by the school and Yoga Journal. “The school embodied everything I stand for when it comes to cooking: picking whole foods and eating to heal the body,” she says. “I was so excited when I won the scholarship. My hard work had paid off.”
The home cook closed her business and quit her PR job before diving into the six-month session in New York City. Ramirez learned everything from knife skills to how to use natural ingredients, including “playing with seaweed.” Her fellow students came from a wide geographical base, introducing her to other cuisines and giving her a solid network of fellow chefs for support. All of this helped her gain confidence.
Now Ramirez is back in Miami, working as a line cook for Giorgio Rapicavoli, winner of Food Network’s Chopped, and building her culinary know-how. While she’s focused on becoming a better cook, she’s dreaming of eventually doing something big for the community through healthful food with Latin flavors. “It might be artisanal products at your local organic grocery store or a food truck that serves creative recipes,” she says.
As Ramirez refines her skills and incubates her dreams, she has also refocused on what matters the most to her: family. Thanks to her nudging, Ramirez’s parents have switched their daily white rice for quinoa and freekeh (grains with more protein, fiber, and iron). “They say that it tastes almost the same, and that these swaps have helped them feel healthier,” Ramirez says. She’s also steered her mom toward probiotic-rich kombucha for gut health, and has given her parents’ pantry a makeover.
To get a taste of Ramirez’s healthy takes on Latin-American cuisine, enjoy these four recipes—straight from Mari’s actual kitchen. The tropically inflected, spiced-up results come from blending the best of her childhood eats with ingredients from the modern, healthful kitchen. Perfect for parties, the dishes pack big flavor—cumin, chiles, lime—and lots of juicy produce. In a word: ¡Delicioso!
4 Light, Latin-Inspired Recipes
Arroz Con Pollo
Arroz con pollo (rice with chicken) is a staple dish in every Latin-American household. Unfortunately, it’s now commonly made with spice packets filled with MSG. Instead, Ramirez opts for fresh oregano, turmeric, and saffron to achieve the same authentic flavor. Research suggests that oregano and turmeric have powerful anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties, while saffron may help prevent post-exercise muscle pain or weakness.
Watermelon Mojito Smoothie
Instead of using rum and simple syrup, Ramirez opts for summer fruits and chia seeds for a fiber boost.
Mango-Avocado Pico de Gallo Crostinis
Pico de gallo is a traditional Mexican salsa. Serve it on a whole-wheat baguette instead of fried tortilla chips, and give it a Cuban twist by replacing tomato with sweet mango. The salsa with creamy avocado infuses healthy fats.
Flan is typically made with eggs, condensed milk, and whole milk. In this vegan version, Ramirez swaps the dairy for light coconut milk, tofu, and agar (a sea vegetable that adds a gelatinous texture). And instead of heavily processed sugars, she uses maple syrup and Sucanat sugar, an unrefined cane sugar that retains its molasses content, preserving trace amounts of iron and calcium. This flan is still a sweet splurge, but the swaps nix some sugar.