Why I Went Plant-Based, and Recreated a Tuna Melt, With Chickpea “Tuna Salad”
I’m writing this on Day 11 of The Beet’s 21-Day Plant-Based Challenge. Three things recently got me here, on what’s probably the 797th of such diet challenges I’ve tried over the decades—but somehow this one really does feel different (Disclosure: I’ve said that about Keto, Atkins, Paleo, Weight Watchers, the Cabbage Soup Diet, and probably a dozen others).
First, my friend Lucy Danziger launched The Beet, which got me interested in reading about the benefits of a plant-based lifestyle from her daily newsletter. Second, literally five people over three days told me about The Game Changers on Netflix, which features UFC fighter James Wilks and his quest to uncover the science to support the health benefits from a plant-based diet. It’s a very convincing film, where everyone from Arnold Schwarzenegger to a group of meat-loving New York City firefighters espouse a plant-based lifestyle and seem to set a new path toward lifelong wellbeing.
But the third motivator is perhaps the most serious and urgent. My 70-year father was recently diagnosed with dementia, the kind that’s likely to mimick Alzheimer’s Disease. We’ve heckled him for years about forgetting where he put his keys, or asking the same questions two or three times, or even because of the blank, sad look he’s sometimes had on his face, telling him to just “snap out of it, Pop.” To learn it’s actually been a slow road to dementia has been heartbreaking for our family. He’s only seventy, how is this happening!? But as my concern for him deepens, I’m selfishly seeing my father as a crystal ball—as if I'm getting a peek at 24 years into my future—and I’m petrified by what I see.
So here I am, on Day 11. My mind has been more clear, my body feels less bloated and free of inflammation and I have damn near close to 12-hours of uninterrupted energy each day—something I only used to experience in short bursts. I’ve lost a few pounds, but for the first time in my lifelong career as a Professional Dieter, weight loss is actually the second—maybe even the third—thing I’m going for after a healthy brain and healthy heart that will help me live purposefully into my nineties.
My Chickpea “Tuna” Salad Experiment
I visited my parents yesterday with my 14-year-old son, and I did what any dutiful Jewish son would do when they visit their aging parents on the New Jersey shore: I took them to the diner for lunch. Where I was raised, diners are an institution that provide equal comfort over eggs and crispy bacon on a Sunday morning as they do over a patty melt and disco fries at 2:00 a.m. on a Friday night.
For the first time in my life, I had what only can be described as "Diner’s Order Block." I studied every. single. page. but couldn’t find any good vegan options. A big salad? Not in the mood. The “Garden” Burger? Who orders a garden burger at a diner? Has to taste like cardboard. As my mom landed on ordering the hot opened-faced turkey sandwich, my dad chose the beef stroganoff and my son chose the bacon sandwich, I felt very underwhelmed and panicked. I settled on what ended up being a very mediocre Portobello mushroom veggie wrap, without the provolone cheese, and a side of fries.
But what I really wanted was the tuna melt. I hadn’t thought about tuna salad in months, but seeing it on the diner's menu made me crave it, and I almost convinced myself to order it thinking, “I’ve been so good, this won’t kill me.” But my new, clearer, vegan head prevailed, as did the veggie wrap.
Serendipity called the next morning, and it came in the form of my daily newsletter from The Beet. I awoke to JD Raymundo’s recipe for Chickpea "Tuna" Salad in my inbox and ran right over to Whole Foods for the ingredients I was missing: Vegan mayo, lemon and bread. The recipe is super easy to mash up, and the only thing I skipped was the Old Bay (just never been a fan). Instead of JD’s classic sandwich construction, I decided to satisfy yesterday’s craving and turned my chickpea “tuna” salad into a bona fide vegan version of a New Jersey Diner Tuna Melt Deluxe.
After making the “tuna” salad, I spread vegan mayo on whole-grain bread and placed each slice spread-side down in a frying pan. I then topped each side with Violife’s vegan mature cheddar slices, and then spooned on my chickpea “tuna” salad. After a minute or two, I flipped one side on top of the other and grilled the sandwich on each side for another few minutes until the bread was golden and crispy.
To make it a tuna melt “deluxe”, I whipped up some fries by cutting up a sweet potato into sticks, then tossing them in olive oil, salt, pepper, garlic salt, and paprika before baking for 30 minutes on 400 degrees. Dill pickle on the side, and deluxe it became.
The final result was delicious and satisfying! The consistency was very tuna salad-like, and the diced onion, pickle and celery gave it a nice little crunch and that familiar flavor profile for which I was craving. While I was disappointed I couldn’t get the cheese to melt more without burning the bread, I was very pleased with the taste and creaminess of the Violife cheese. The vegan mayo was also great for that golden brown crispiness of the bread. Next time, I’m going to double the “tuna” salad recipe and have enough for a few lunches or snacks throughout the week.
With simple, protein-rich options like this, I’m finding it easier and easier to stay plant-based, and look forward to the days and weeks ahead!