- Nutrition -

The Care and Feeding of a Healthy Brain

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Enhance your brain function with four recipes designed to invigorate mood, memory, and cognition.

What if eating certain foods could help you ace that big exam, be at your sharpest for an important meeting, or keep your memory clear as you age?

That prospect is not science fiction; it’s scientific fact. In the last few years, our understanding of food’s impact on mind, mood, and memory has exploded. We now know that the food we eat affects how well our brains function.

For me, the notion that food may be nature’s answer to a host of brain maladies that touch so many of us is incredibly liberating. We can harness the latest neurological research on improving cognition, emotion, memory, mood, and physical health and translate it straight to our dinner plates, using nutrient-dense foods to promote a healthy mind from childhood on.

It also allows us to expand upon what many food traditions have long observed: that mint can refresh, ginger can invigorate, cinnamon can improve memory, basil can improve mental clarity — and more.

The recipes that follow feature brain-bolstering foods and herbs such as kale, sweet potatoes, chicken, and oregano. The best part? These flavorful recipes taste as good as they are good for you.

Cozy Lentil Soup With Delicata Squash

Scientists have promised that someday little nanobots will act like tiny microprocessors in our brains, helping to make us smarter. Why wait? We already have a teensy legume that does that. Ounce for ounce, lentils pack an amazing quantity of brain boosters, including iron, which is essential to the function of the myelin that supports quick information gathering. It’s a myth that to prepare lentils you have to soak them overnight; just a quick rinse will do. You can substitute fennel, which is a good digestive aid, for the celery to add more depth to the flavor.

Cozy-Lentil-Soup

Makes six servings
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 35 minutes

  • 2 tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 yellow onion, diced
  • Sea salt
  • 2 carrots, peeled and diced
  • 2 celery stalks, diced
  • 1 medium delicata or butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
  • 1 tsp. curry powder
  • 1/2 tsp. ground cumin
  • 1/2 tsp. ground turmeric
  • 1/4 tsp. ground coriander
  • 1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • Pinch of red pepper flakes
  • 1 cup dried green lentils, rinsed well
  • 8 cups Classic Magic Mineral Broth (see Web Extra below!) or organic vegetable broth
  • 1 cup stemmed and thinly sliced kale, tightly packed

Heat the olive oil in a Dutch oven or heavy soup pot over medium heat. Add the onion and a pinch of salt, and sauté until translucent, about four minutes. Add the carrots, celery, squash, and another pinch of salt, and sauté until all of the vegetables are just tender, about five minutes.

Add the curry powder, cumin, turmeric, coriander, cinnamon, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and red pepper flakes, and stir. Add the lentils and stir to coat. Pour in 1/2 cup of the broth, stirring to loosen any bits stuck to the pot, and cook until the liquid is reduced by half.

Add the rest of the broth. Increase the heat to high and bring to a boil. Decrease the heat to low, cover, and simmer until the lentils are tender, about 20 to 25 minutes. You may want to add a pinch more salt to taste. Stir in the kale and cook until it’s tender, about three minutes, and serve.

Per Serving: Calories: 224; Total Fat: 6 g (1 g saturated, 4 g monounsaturated); Carbohydrates: 37 g; Protein: 9 g; Fiber: 10 g; Sodium: 329 mg

Storage: Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 5 days or in the freezer for up to 2 months.

Baked Chicken With Minted Chimichurri

Chicken is absolutely loaded with tryptophan, which can boost mood and help sleep come easier. It’s also high in vitamin B3 (a.k.a. niacin), which the Chicago Health and Aging Project found may slow cognitive decline. Here we take chicken thighs and jazz ’em up with a tantalizing minted chimichurri. The scent of mint has been shown to increase alertness, and the taste is perfect for waking up chicken and other meats.

Baked-Chicken-With-Minted-Chimichurri

For the Minted Chimichurri

Makes 1 1/2 cups
Prep time: 15 minutes

  • 1 cup fresh mint, tightly packed
  • 1 cup flat-leaf parsley, tightly packed
  • 1/2 cup fresh oregano (or 3 tbs. dried)
  • 6 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3/4 tsp. red pepper flakes
  • 3/4 tsp. sea salt
  • 3 tsp. lemon zest
  • 1/2 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil

For the Baked Chicken

Makes four servings
Prep time: 20 minutes (plus up to two hours to marinate)
Cook time: 40 minutes

  • 8 pasture-raised, bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs
  • 11/2 cups minted chimichurri (at left)
  • 1/2 tsp. sea salt
  • 1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

Add all the minted chimichurri ingredients to a blender or food processor, and process until well combined.

Put the chicken in a large bowl with 6 tablespoons of the chimichurri and toss to coat. Cover with plastic wrap and marinate in the refrigerator for at least 45 minutes or up to two hours.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Wipe the chicken with a paper towel to remove excess chimichurri; place the chicken on the prepared baking sheet skin side up and season with salt and pepper. Bake for 40 minutes or until the chicken juices run clear and an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of a thigh reaches 160 degrees F.

Transfer the chicken to a serving platter and drizzle a few tablespoons of the remaining chimichurri over it. Serve, with the rest of the chimichurri on the side.

Per Serving: Calories: 140; Total Fat: 7 g (2 g saturated, 0 g monounsaturated); Carbohydrates: 4.5 g; Protein: 14 g; Fiber: 0.5 g; Sodium: 426 mg

Storage: Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.

Kale Quinoa Salad With Red Grapes

Packed with 45 varieties of antioxidant flavonoids, kale delivers outstanding amounts of brain-enhancing vitamin K (for memory), vitamin A (for learning), and vitamin C (for mood). The anthocyanins that give the sweet red grapes in this recipe their deep color are phenomenal antioxidants that may also enhance memory. The olive oil’s fat increases the bioavailability of kale’s fat-soluble nutrients. 

Kale-Quinoa-Salad-With-Red-Grapes

Makes four servings
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 20 minutes

  • 1 cup quinoa
  • 3/4 tsp. sea salt
  • 1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 1/2 tsp. ground cumin
  • 1/4 tsp. ground coriander
  • Pinch of red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 cups stemmed and finely chopped kale
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh mint, lightly packed
  • 1/4 cup chopped parsley, lightly packed
  • 1 tsp. lemon zest
  • 1/4 cup halved red seedless grapes, or 3 tbs. raisins

Place the quinoa in a bowl of cool water, and whisk for a few minutes (this will release the soapy, bitter-tasting resin that coats the quinoa kernels), then drain it through a fine-mesh sieve.

In a small saucepan, bring 11/2 cups of water and 1/2 teaspoon of salt to a boil over high heat. Add the quinoa and cover. Decrease the heat to low and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring once halfway through, until the quinoa is just tender. Remove from the heat and allow the quinoa to rest for 10 minutes. Fluff the quinoa with a fork.

While the quinoa is cooking, whisk together the lemon juice, the remaining 1/4 teaspoon of salt, cumin, coriander, red pepper flakes, and olive oil in a large bowl. Add the kale and give it a quick massage with your hands. Add the quinoa, mint, parsley, lemon zest, and grapes, and toss lightly to combine. Serve at room temperature.

Per Serving: Calories: 281; Total Fat: 16 g (2 g saturated, 11 g monounsaturated); Carbohydrates: 32 g; Protein: 6 g; Fiber: 4 g; Sodium: 325 mg

Storage: Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.

Sunshine-Up Baked Eggs

Eggs deliver a nice dose of vitamin B12, which has been linked to improved memory and a lower risk of cognitive decline later in life. And there’s something about sunnyside-up eggs that make me smile. Here we bake the eggs in little ramekins filled with a sautéed mix of chard, onion, garlic, parsley, and olives, with tomatoes on top. 

Sunshine-Up-Baked-Eggs

Makes four servings
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 25 minutes

  • 1 bunch chard, washed and well dried
  • 2 tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
  • 4 scallions, minced
  • Sea salt
  • 1 tsp. minced garlic
  • Pinch of red pepper flakes
  • Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1/4 cup crumbled organic feta cheese (optional)
  • 4 organic eggs
  • 8 cherry tomatoes, quartered
  • 8 kalamata olives, coarsely chopped
  • 2 tbs. chopped fresh basil or 1 tsp. minced fresh thyme, for garnish
  • 2 tbs. finely chopped fresh parsley, for garnish

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Remove the stems from the chard leaves and tear the leaves into bite-sized pieces. Chop the remaining stems into 1/2-inch pieces.

Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a sauté pan over medium heat. Add the scallions, chard stems, and a pinch of salt, and sauté until the scallions are translucent, about four minutes. Stir in the garlic, red pepper flakes, and a pinch of salt, and sauté for an additional 30 seconds, then stir in the chard and another pinch of salt; cook until tender, about another minute or two. Remove from the heat and stir in the nutmeg.

Lightly grease four 1-cup ramekins with the remaining olive oil. For each ramekin, spoon in one-fourth of the chard mixture (don’t pack it in too tightly), then sprinkle on one-fourth of the cheese. Gently crack one egg on top of the cheese, then sprinkle the tomatoes, olives, and a pinch of salt evenly into the four ramekins.

Put the ramekins on a baking sheet and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until the whites are set and opaque but the yolk is still runny. Let cool for three minutes. Sprinkle with basil and parsley and serve in the ramekins, or loosen with a knife and transfer to a plate.

Per Serving: Calories: 120; Total Fat: 9.5 g (2.6 g saturated, 5.0 g monounsaturated); Carbohydrates: 6 g; protein: 7 g; Fiber: 2 g; sodium: 285 mg

Storage: Not applicable

All recipes from The Healthy Mind Cookbook. Copyright © 2015 by Rebecca Katz with Mat Edelson, Ten Speed Press, a division of the Crown Publishing Group, Berkeley, Calif.

WEB EXTRA!

Toasty Spiced Pumpkinseeds

Pumpkinseeds might be called nature’s smallest antidepressant (next to a snowflake). They contain glutamate, which produces GABA, a chemical that fights stress in the brain. The seeds have a fantastic crunch and spectacular taste, especially when tossed with cumin and coriander, two anti-inflammatory spices.

Pumpkin-Seeds

Makes 1 cup

Preparation time: 15 minutes

  • 1 cup raw pumpkinseeds
  • 1 tsp. extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 tsp. sea salt
  • 1/2 tsp. ground cumin
  • 1/2 tsp. ground coriander

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.

Put all the ingredients in a bowl and stir until well combined. Spread evenly on the prepared baking sheet and bake for seven to eight minutes, until you can start to smell the spices. Check after five minutes to be sure the seeds aren’t burning. (Sometimes you need to use your ears in the kitchen. Once you hear the seeds start to pop, they’re done.) Allow seeds to cool on the baking sheet.

Per Serving: Serving Size: 1/4 cup; Calories: 132; Total Fat: 11.25 g (1.5 g saturated, 0.5 g monounsaturated); Carbohydrates: 2.75 g; Protein: 5.5 g; Fiver: 1.5 g; Sodium: 203  mg

Storage: Store in an airtight container for up to a month

WEB EXTRA!

Classic Magic Mineral Broth

Purely from a taste perspective, this broth is versatile, delicious, and nutrient dense. But it’s also incredibly healthy for all parts of the body, including the brain. It’s loaded with magnesium, which is incredibly calming. The sweet potatoes and kombu provide a sense of umami, a savory taste that scientists claim is the hidden element behind cravings. If you’re going to have cravings, this is one of the healthiest and tastiest you can indulge.

Mineral-Broth

 

Makes about 6 quarts

Preparation time: two to four hours

  • 6 unpeeled carrots, rinsed well and cut in thirds
  • 2 unpeeled yellow onions, rinsed well and cut into chunks
  • 1 leek, white and green parts, rinsed well and cut in thirds
  • 1 bunch celery, including the heart, rinsed well and cut in thirds
  • 4 unpeeled red potatoes, rinsed well and quartered
  • 3 unpeeled sweet potatoes or yams, rinsed well and quartered
  • 5 unpeeled cloves garlic, halved
  • 1/2 bunch fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • 1 (8-inch) strip of kombu seaweed
  • 12 black peppercorns
  • 4 whole allspice or juniper berries
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 8 quarts cold filtered water, plus more if needed
  • Sea salt

In a 12-quart or larger stockpot, combine the vegetables, parsley, kombu, peppercorns, allspice berries, and bay leaves. Add the water, cover, and bring to a boil. Decrease the heat to low and simmer, partially covered, for at least two hours. As the broth simmers, some of the water will evaporate; add more if the vegetables begin to peek out. Simmer until the full richness of the vegetables can be tasted.

Strain the broth through a large, coarse-mesh sieve (remember to use a heat-resistant container underneath), and discard the solids. Add 1 teaspoon sea salt, or more to taste. Let cool to room temperature before refrigerating or dividing and freezing in 1-quart containers.

Per Serving: Serving Size: 1 cup; Calories: 45; Total Fat: 0 g (0 g saturated, 0 g monounsaturated); Carbohydrates: 11 g; Protein: 1 g; Fiber: 2 g; Sodium: 124 mg

Storage: Store in airtight container in the refrigerator for 5 to 7 days or in the freezer for 4 months.

Rebecca Katz, MS, is the author of The Healthy Mind Cookbook: Big-Flavor Recipes to Enhance Brain Function, Mood, Memory, and Mental Clarity. She’s the director of the Healing Kitchens Institute at Commonweal and executive chef of the annual Food As Medicine training program sponsored by the Center for Mind-Body Medicine. She lives in San Rafael, Calif.