Newport Beach Cookbook Author Talks About Embracing A Plant-Based Diet

"The closer you move to the plant-based end of the spectrum, the more health benefits you will reap."

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Photograph by John Wallis

I’ve often wondered about embracing a vegan regime. On the advice of their doctors, a few friends have made the switch to a vegan, plant-based diet that eschews meat, eggs, dairy products, and all other animal-derived ingredients. After sitting down and eating with Newport Beach-based author Sandra Sellani, I viewed it in a more pleasurable light.

Sellani’s book, “The 40-Year-Old Vegan: 75 Recipes to Make You Leaner, Cleaner and Greener in the Second Half of Life,” helped me understand how my pals have been able to make the transition. There’s a whole lot less suffering than I imagined.

Sandra and Susan Sellani, co- authors of the book, are 57-year-old fraternal twins who grew up in an Italian-American family, eating delicious home-cooked dishes. The food-loving siblings live on different coasts. While they still love to eat, they switched to healthier recipes once they turned 40.

“Growing up, we always loved to be in the kitchen, watching our mother and grandmothers cook their famous Sellani Italian recipes,” Sandra says. “Susan and I decided to create a cookbook with family recipes adapted to how we both eat today (Sandra eats vegan, Susan eats mostly vegetarian).” Part of the challenge was that none of the cooks in their family wrote down the recipes, but Susan remembered the ingredients.

As Sandra chats about her transition to a vegan lifestyle, she makes a fishless tuna sandwich. Quick and easy to prepare, the “tuna” doesn’t have Italian roots, but is a good choice because of its practicality as the centerpiece of a quick meal. She makes from-scratch “mayonnaise,” blending soaked cashews, garlic, apple cider vinegar, salt, and water in her NutriBullet gizmo. It’s thick and creamy.

Photograph by John Wallis

The tuna ingredients are whirled in the food processor until smooth: garbanzo beans, capers, and that vegan mayo. After stirring in some finely diced celery and seasoning with salt and pepper, she spreads the concoction onto organic whole wheat bread (Dave’s Killer Bread).

I’m happily surprised at the brininess the capers lend to the mix; the garbanzos give it a tuna-like texture. It’s pleasing and almost tastes like the real deal. I eat it with glee.

Meanwhile, she tells me about how to turn zucchini into crisp fries to go with her version of ranch dressing.

Sandra completed her culinary training at Matthew Kenney Culinary Academy in Venice Beach and holds a certification in Plant-Based Nutrition from the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutritional Studies. Her credentials are impressive, but her expertise didn’t come overnight.

She became a vegetarian at 25, but began in what she considers an unhealthy way, substituting cheese for meat. She started her vegan diet when training for the New York City Marathon at 50. She lost weight. Her cholesterol dropped to 160.

“But even if you are never 100 percent vegan, the closer you move to the plant-based end of the spectrum, the more health benefits you will reap,” she says. “I’ve always loved cooking, but initially there was a learning curve. Gratefully, I found a vegan butter substitute that I love from Miyoko’s Creamery … and their double cream cheese is delicious, too.”

Her strategy for ordering in restaurants is often to get a big dairy-free salad. Sometimes, if it seems appropriate, she asks the chef to create something vegan. Often the chef welcomes the challenge and she ends up with something delicious.

“For me there are no downsides to being vegan,” she says with a broad smile and contented tone. “It’s a joyful way to live, and every part of my life is in alignment.”

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