Walk into Annie Mahon’s spacious kitchen on a day she’s cooking, and the first thing you’ll notice are fresh herbs and spices resting on her wooden cutting block. The second is a savory aroma wafting from a Le Cruset cauldron simmering on the gas cook top as chickpeas bubble until the outsides are a glistening alabaster and the insides are creamy.
“I don’t add salt to the pot because it dries them out,” said Mahon, a Potomac, Md. resident.
Mahon drained the legumes and doused them with enough olive oil, fresh-squeezed lemon juice, Himalayan sea salt, garlic, red onion and ginger so that their mellow and bland disposition had no choice but enliven under such lush treatment.
“I usually cook once or twice a week,” said Mahon on a recent Sunday afternoon. “This will last until Thursday and the longer it sits the more flavorful it becomes.”
In another olive oil-coated crucible, Mahon sautés corn, releasing the clean flavors of each kernel. She tosses black beans and slivers of red peppers into the pot and then sprinkles the concoction with assertive cumin, woodsy, shredded basil and pungent, chopped garlic. The warm oil melded the flavors, giving the dish a profoundly savory bite.
One thing is missing from her menu: animal products. While Mahon is creating an efficient, balanced meal, researchers say she is also prolonging her life. A recent study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, a Journal of the American Medical Association, showed that vegans and vegetarians experienced a 12 percent lower rate of untimely deaths than their meat-eating counterparts.
According to the study, a vegetarian diet has been associated with lowered risk of several chronic diseases such as hypertension, diabetes and heart disease. Medical experts say dietary choices appear to play a big role in protecting the 70,000-plus study participants from heart disease, which vegetarians were 19 percent less likely to die from than meat-eaters.
“Fruits and veggies — all of them, always are good for hearts,” said Laura Evans, who holds a doctor of nursing practice and works as an assistant professor in the Nurse Practitioner Program at George Mason University School of Nursing in Fairfax, Va. “[Also] good are flax seed, nuts especially walnuts and almonds, canola and olive oil.”
Evans adds that cholesterol-rich foods can send one’s blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol readings on the wrong side of normal. “Foods from animals, cheese [because] it’s an animal product and most varieties [of cheese] are high in fat and cholesterol. All processed food [is] bad for hearts.”
While many carnivores consume their share of plants, the idea of abstaining from meat, dairy and poultry can seem like an insurmountable feat. Local dieticians say not so, however. As Mahon shows, meatless meals are not synonymous with self-denial, monotony, brown rice and tofu.
“The number one thing to do is to explore different types of vegetables. Think outside of green beans and corn,” said Alexandria, Va., resident and registered dietician Bonita Lillie of the Dietetic Consultants of Northern Virginia in Fairfax and Marymount University in Arlington. “Farmers markets are great time this year. I was at the Kingstowne Farmers Market [in Alexandria] recently and I discovered four or five different kinds of eggplants that I hadn’t heard of.”
When combined with the right spices, root vegetables and Portobello mushroom can make even the most devoted carnivore leave the land of burgers and steak, even if only temporarily.
“Try mixing in herbs and spices to take out salt,” said Lillie. “Research to determine which herbs would go best with which vegetables. There are a lot of savory herbs that enhance the flavors of vegetables. Spaghetti squash with marinara sauce, for example, is not meat based, but can be very satisfying.”
Meanwhile, Mahon, who eliminated most meat from her diet to support her health, is writing a cookbook that she hopes will show others that vegan meals can be healthful, simple and satisfying.