Anna Rios is a Registered Dietician at Marin Community Clinics in California providing medical nutrition therapy to patients of all ages. She finds that if you can give them one recipe it can be the key to opening their minds about eating a plant-based diet. Here are her lifesaving recipes.

Patrizio came to see me for the first time on January 2nd, 2019. He weighed 275 pounds. He told me that his New Year resolution was to see a dietitian and take his health seriously. The second thing that Patrizio told me was that he was Italian, he was interested in starting a plant-based diet, but refused to give up his favorite cheeses under any circumstances. I asked him what his favorite Italian dish was and he said “My Mama’s ricotta stuffed shells! Can’t live without it!”

I assured him that we would work on reducing all other animal products besides cheese. Patrizio seemed very comfortable with this decision, we created a few attainable goals together and he left motivated to begin his journey.

Small Steps into a Plant-Based Diet

One of the first goals Patrizio created was to increase his vegetable intake. Patrizio admitted to only eating vegetables once or twice a week. I recommended he experiment with various ways of cooking, prepping, and seasoning his vegetables. He came back to see me after a few weeks and reported eating vegetables almost every day! He discovered his new love for vegetables by adding lemon juice, olive oil, garlic, pepper and a touch of chili powder.

This was the first time I saw him excited about the lifestyle change process. He was so happy he asked that I recommend some new recipes for him to try. I offered five different recipes, two of them including some type of vegan cheese. He chose to try the three recipes without the vegan cheese saying, “I’ve heard vegan cheese taste terrible! I’d rather have the real thing.” I did not push further and he left my office with a sense of excitement to try the new recipes.

Seeing the Benefits

By mid-March, Patrizio was seeing me once a week and continued to make many changes to his diet little by little. He had reduced his red meat intake to only once a month, was eating vegetables almost daily, and was having at least one fully plant-based meal a day. Patrizio had also started to lose some weight at this point:  By March 15th he weighed in at 263, down 12 pounds. After weighing himself I saw his face light up and then he said, “I never thought losing weight along with eating a more plant-based diet would be that easy and would make me feel so good!”. After seeing his hard work pay off, Patrizio became even more motivated and was eager to completely take out meat, fish, eggs and milk.

Patrizio became so interested in health and nutrition that he decided to come to my clinic’s heath hubs every Wednesday. Health hubs are a fun way to introduce healthy foods to our community by hosting outdoor exercise groups, playing fun music, and providing samples of healthy plant-based dishes, while also handing out the recipes. I started seeing Patrizio every Wednesday, coming by to taste the recipe of the week that I had made. We sampled healthy burrito bowls, quinoa salads, chia pudding and many more.

By late July and Patrizio had gone (almost) fully plant-based! He was still eating his favorite ricotta and mozzarella cheese dishes one or two times a week. I was very proud of Patrizio and knew that he was doing great, so if he refused to give up the last bit of cheese it was not a deal-breaker for me. However, I did have a plan for the upcoming Wednesday health hub. I was planning to make my favorite vegan ricotta stuffed shells recipe. I had been recipe testing this one for months now trying to perfect it and hoping to surprise him just a bit.

Yes, Vegan Ricotta Can Taste as Good as the Real Thing!

Wednesday came around and Patrizio approached my booth at the health hub fair and immediately asked, “What will I be trying this week, Anna?” I respond with “Ricotta stuffed pasta shells” and his eyes widened in disbelief. He asked if it was regular or vegan ricotta to which I responded “You be the judge of that!” He was hesitant but took his first bite, immediately scoffs and said, “Wow, you normally make plant-based recipes but today you used actual ricotta cheese!” That's when I told him that it was in fact plant-based ricotta and showed him the recipe card. He was blown away by that and asked for a second sample. I could see in his face that he was confused but pleasantly surprised. We talked for almost half an hour about plant-based cheeses and how to make them using cashews, almonds, tofu and more. He seemed excited with the stuffed shells and took the recipe card home.

The Final Results

I did not see Patrizio for another three weeks because of a vacation I had planned. When I finally saw him again we did another weigh-in. This time Patrizio weighed 245 pounds, for a total a weight loss of 30 pounds! He could no longer fill out any of his older clothing and reported feeling much more energized. He was also ecstatic to report he had not had any cheese for the past 3 weeks. He took the plant-based ricotta recipe home and had made it once a week since. Something that really stood out to me was when he said “After trying that plant-based ricotta and enjoying it I thought if that was possible, anything is possible.”.

Patrizio had the opportunity to make the plant-based stuffed shells for his Italian family and they absolutely loved it! He feels that it is a way to continue honoring his mother and his Italian heritage by recreating the same flavorful recipe in a much healthier way. Patrizio has now been fully plant-based for over a year, weighs 210 pounds, and is living a much healthier life.

If Patrizio can do it, we can all do it!

Vegan Ricotta Stuffed Shells:

Ingredients

  • 8 oz large pasta shells
  • 1 cup basil tomato sauce
  • 2 cups cremini mushrooms
  • 2 cups baby spinach
  • Fresh basil
  • 2 tbsp EVOO

Vegan Ricotta

  • 5 cups raw cashews (soaked)
  • 1/3 cup almond milk
  • 1 Tbsp Apple cider vinegar (ACV)
  • 3 Tbsp nutritional yeast
  • 1 tsp minced garlic or garlic powder
  • Salt to taste

You will need: food processor, medium pan, baking tray/dish, large pot

Instructions

  1. Soak cashews overnight or in boiling hot water for 30 minutes. Drain cashews and add to a food processor along with almond milk, ACV, nutritional yeast, garlic and salt.
  2. Chill ricotta in refrigerator meanwhile pasta cooks. Follow instructions on box/bag to cook pasta al dente.
  3. Dice mushrooms. Sauté baby spinach and mushrooms in a medium pan with a little salt and pepper for 7-10 minutes. Set aside to cool off.
  4. Drain pasta and add 2 tbsp olive oil to prevent it pasta from sticking or drying out.
  5. Take cashew ricotta out of the fridge and mix it in with the sautéed mushrooms and spinach.
  6. Preheat oven to 400 F. Spread tomato sauce to the bottom of your baking dish.
  7. Once pasta is cool enough begin stuffing with ricotta/shroom/spinach mix. I add about 1 tbsp but you can be the judge of how much you want to add!
  8. Place stuffed pasta shells on top of the tomato sauce on your baking dish and bake for 20 minutes at 400 F.
  9. Take our dish and let cool for 15-20 minutes before adding fresh basil to serve and enjoy.