Award-Winning Novelist Andrew Cotto Tries a Plant-Based Diet, Writes About it
All that said, I’m not married to meat. I don’t drool upon hearing the word “bacon” nor do I eat burgers topped with some other meat. I don’t “all-you-can-eat” anything. My eating habits, thanks to all of those Italian experiences, are safely described as Mediterranean. I believe in eating well as a means of being well, and this involves variety, appropriate portions, lots of water and little-to-no sugar. And it was this notion that I eat well and live well and look pretty good (for a guy my age) that kept me from considering any changes to my diet.
But the term 'plant-based' kept coming up in my readings and conversations. I ate dinner with a celebrity chef at a plant-based Mexican place and thoroughly enjoyed it. And when I was connected with Lucy Danziger here at The Beet, I had an idea for an article: Meat-eater goes plant-based for a week. Seven days sans anything to do with eating animals. I’m guessing I’ve never gone more than a single day in my whole life without consuming something animal-oriented. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Here’s how it went:
The first thing I did was go to Sahadi’s near my home in Brooklyn for an array of Middle-Eastern inspired roasted vegetables, cooked grains and a vat of hummus to dollop on everything. (This was in safer times when going out was not an act of aggression.) I stocked up on their dry goods: nuts and seeds and dried fruits. This got me, happily, through the weekend (abetted by a good amount of pricey wine I splurged on to accompany dinners). I was more concerned with the weekdays, especially as I’ve been eating meat and cheese sandwiches at midday forever. I’ve taught writing at a college in Midtown East for years, but I hadn’t really explored my neighborhood eateries, though I was aware of the numerous fast-casual places opening up and even a brand new one with “plant-based” plastered on the window.
I went there first, Le Botaniste, and tucked into a Tagine soup stocked with toothy veggies and bold flavor. I was also easily able to order plant-based bowls at Naya and Dig, respectively, both satisfying and flavorful. On other days, I went to hot bars and loaded up on bean salads, hunks of avocado and quinoa. My big takeaway was how easy it was to find plant-based options within a few blocks and how enjoyable it was to eat them. I certainly did not miss my meat sandwiches...
Dinner at home during the week was a concern in a few ways: 1) Cooking dinner is one of my daily pleasures; 2) I have meat or fish almost every night. One of my deviations from meat-forward meals is pasta, but there’s usually some meat in the base and always some cheese on top. Instead, I went with an egg-free pasta with aglio e olio (garlic & oil) with parsley, peperoncino, and toasted bread crumbs instead of cheese. Totally worked. Another night I had black bean tacos with scallions and brown rice (and a lot of hot sauce). I also made the soup I've served to my vegetarian friends over the years: Ribollita, an Italian bread soup with cabbage, white beans, and tomatoes. And then I had it again. All of the meals were hands-on and fun to make with the type of results that keep people cooking at home. Yes, I kept drinking that fancy wine all week long.
Dinner out had me skeptical. The Mexican plant-based place where I’d eaten, Bar Verde, was owned by a chef (Matthew Kenney) who had a plant-based pizza joint next door, Double Zero. I mean, I can live without cheese on my sandwiches and, if necessary, not sprinkled on my pasta, but no cheese on pizza! Come on, now. My skepticism mushroomed (plant-based pun!) when I learned that the “cheese” on plant-based pizza comes from cashews. Cashews? Of course, I tried it, and, yeah, it was pretty good, as was the pie itself, with roasted fennel and red peppers and sauteed cannellini beans. I’d get it again, but what I am running back to Double Zero for is the shockingly good cacio e pepe!
Cashew cheese on pizza...Okay, fine. Cashew cheese in cacio e pepe? No way. Yes way. It was so good, creamy and flavorful, consistent as the real deal. Perfectly made, too, which helped. I’m thinking about it right now...
By the end of the week, I’d dropped five pounds I didn’t know I had available to drop. But most importantly, I felt really good: sharp and spirited, great energy. I’d also broadened the palette of my palate, engaging so many foods and flavors that I’d simply avoided or ignored. It’s just nice in general to break away from routine and to try new things, so I felt good about that, too. I eased back into eating meat when the week ended, but I’ll never be the same meat-eater again. I will simply eat less for now and, perhaps, none at all at some future point. Imagine that? I never could have until my plant-based week. I might have to change the focus of my writing...
Andrew Cotto is an award-winning novelist and regular contributor to the New York Times. A lover of Italian cuisine, he hosts a food and wine reading series every Saturday night at 6 p.m. ET on Facebook and Instagram, featuring excerpts from his novel, Cucina Tipica: An Italian Adventure.