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KITCHEN SHRINK Back-to-school food lessons, Parts 1 and 2

Catharine L. Kaufman
Catharine L. Kaufman

PART1

As the dog days of summer fade into the classroom, whether grade school or grad school, students need to shift their energy from brawn to brains and pick foods that fuel the mind. Here’s a list of no-brainers for a stellar fall semester.

•Brain Food: Studies have shown that pregnant women who eat “brain food” rich in omega-3 fatty acids (like carefully chosen fish and seafood) may boost their children’s IQs. Einstein was found to have, during his autopsy, 73 percent more glial cells than the average brain. These form during the embryo’s development, so Mama Pauline must’ve been eating right. Einstein himself ate plenty of fish.

Best to stick to wild-caught, deep sea, cold-water ones like salmon, herring, sardines, mackerel and shrimp. Two of the omega-3s in fish known as DHA and EPA are key fatty acids that keep brain cells and neurotransmitters well-lubricated and vibrant, improving mood, wiring and cell-to-cell communications, which translate to better focus and thinking quickly on your feet. Seaweed and other oceanic veggies are also treasure-troves of brain nutrients.

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•An Egghead: It’s no yolk that eggs are a near perfect package. The whites provide a rich protein store, while the yolks have a mother lode of choline, a water-soluble nutrient of the B-complex family. Choline dials up memory, focus and cognitive function, so get cracking at breakfast, lunch or dinner with devilled, poached, frittatas, omelets, foo youngs, scrambles, or egg salad sandwiches.

•The Nutty Professor: How fitting that walnuts loaded with brain-boosting plant omega-3s, aka alpha-linolenic acid, resemble miniature hemispheres of the brain. These essential fatty acids have been linked to blocking signals produced by free radicals that create inflammation. Walnuts’ omega-3s increase cognitive functioning similar to fatty acids from animal sources by keeping the brain lubricated and lively. They also bolster melatonin levels, one of the sleep regulating hormones. So if you’re having trouble catching your zzz’s, munch on some soporific walnuts before bedtime making you well rested and alert in the a.m.

•Use Your Bean: Other brainiacs like Beethoven had a penchant for very strong coffee — 60 beans per cup. More than 100 million people in this country start their day with a java jolt. The coffee bean is packed with antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and even brain-friendly caffeine. After decades of debate, jo is considered a high-octane brain fuel when consumed in moderate amounts. Caffeine, in particular, has been linked to boosting short-term memory, increasing focus and problem-solving skills.

Pure dark chocolate with a cocoa content over 70 percent is a brain stimulating food packed with catechins and antioxidant flavonoids — eight times the number found in strawberries. This blissful bean elevates mood and cognitive functions, so indulge guilt-lessly.

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•Finally, Technicolor lentils in red, orange, green and brown varieties are packed with folate to hike dopamine levels, which ratchets up mood and mental performance.

Insalata Gamberi

Courtesy of Piatti’s Chef Pepe Capatinta

Ingredients:

1 head of butter lettuce, torn in pieces

4 ounces of poached and chilled

jumbo shrimp

Handful of grape tomatoes, halved

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Half of an avocado, sliced lengthwise,

pit and shell removed

Dill Dressing:

2 cups Greek yogurt

1 tablespoon minced shallots

1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill

2 limes, juiced

1 finely diced Persian cucumber

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Salt and black pepper to taste

In a small mixing bowl, blend ingredients and set aside.

Method: Place butter lettuce (option to drizzle with olive oil & lemon) on a plate and top with avocado half. Toss poached shrimp with yogurt dill dressing and place on top of avocado and salad. Garnish with tomatoes.

PART 2

Students need to fuel their brains with high-octane foods. That means hearty breakfasts to jump-start the brain wiring, loads of leafy greens and Technicolor berries to tune up focus and concentration, along with healthful herbs and teas to spark energy levels and memory.

•Breakfast of Champions: Eat this meal like a king or queen, lunch like a duke or duchess, and dinner like a pauper. Food gurus, school administrators, teachers, athletes and smart moms and dads realize that breakfast, hands down is the most important meal of the day for shifting the brain into high gear.

Whole wheat breads, muffins and energy bars have been found to channel mental focus; old-fashioned oatmeal is a nutritional source of glucose to sustain the brainpower throughout the morning; organic yoghurt, berries and bananas, an omega-3 breakfast pizza with smoked salmon and feta cheese, and especially a flax seed smoothie loaded with alpha-linolenic acid will dial up mental performance and repair stressed brain cells.

•Tea (cheers): If coffee is not your cup of tea, try a steaming brew of Yerba Mate. These South American tea leaves will perk up the brain similar to a caffeine-infused drink, but without the energy crash.

•Brainy Berries: Blueberries are packed with a variety of micronutrients, including Vitamins B6, C and K along with manganese, antioxidant pigments and phytochemicals. These are attributed to enhancing long-term memory and cognitive processing, along with shielding the brain from free-radical attack. So toss them on your pancakes, cereal, salads, ice cream and yoghurt, and rejoice.

The açaí (pronounced ah-sigh-eeh, meaning “fruit that cries”) is another brainy berry. Packed with antioxidants, omega fatty acids, amino acids, fiber, Vitamins A, B6, C and E, iron and calcium this little gem has been linked to boosting mental performance, in addition to staving off age-related brain ailments.

As a Brazilian import, the açaí is only available as a juice fruit pulp or freeze-dried powder. Its rich taste blending purple berries with bittersweet chocolate makes it delightful in smoothies and the traditional Brazilian frozen açaí bowls.

•Salad Smarts: Popeye, the comic-strip character endowed with brilliant problem-solving skills and investigative powers along with scientific savvy (and impressive forearms), can surely attribute these talents to the large doses of spinach he consumed. A neurological study has shown that those who eat two or more servings of leafy green vegetables a day had significantly improved mental focus.

•Memory Mentors, Jot them down: Rosemary, the aromatic evergreen of Mediterranean roots, not only jazzes up boring chicken and tames the gamey flavor of lamb, but also snaps memory back into shape. Rosemary contains carnosic acid (CA), which has been found to ward off free radicals bombarding the brain. Likewise, mint has been linked to hiking up concentration, and the ability to recall information. Before an exam or test chew a refreshing mint leaf, sip a cool glass of mint-infused H2O, or suck on a natural mint candy to improve test scores.

•Fun Factoid: Although not a food per se, chewing gum has been found to increase alertness during a tense project or test.

Minty Walnut Pesta

Ingredients

1 1/2 cups fresh basil leaves

1/2 cup fresh mint leaves

1 large garlic clove

1/3 cup walnut pieces

2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Salt and black pepper to taste

Method: In a food processor or blender, add basil, mint, walnuts, garlic, salt and pepper, and blend until minced. Slowly add a stream of oil until the mixture forms a smooth, creamy texture. Place in a glass bowl and fold in the cheese. Blend with your favorite pasta or use as a sandwich spread. Cover and refrigerate for up to three days.