The New and Improved Potluck: Brain Works alumni share their best dishes
At the first annual Brain Works alumni potluck, there was not a casserole in sight. “Bring a brain healthy dish to share” was the only instruction given to graduates of the Brain Works dementia prevention program. Soon my backyard table was crowded with platters and bowls. I took in the reds, greens, blues, yellows and purples. This was colorful food. I couldn’t help but feel extremely proud of this group of students from all the Brain Works cooking classes I had taught over the last two years.
A rainbow of potluck dishes
I don’t know about you, but the word “potluck” does not always make my mouth water. Potlucks usually involve more than a few platters of deviled eggs, starchy and creamy casseroles, sour cream-spiked dips and meat-laden dishes. Although these foods may have been crowd-pleasers in the past, now my students and I have adopted a cleaner, fresher palate. There’s nothing wrong with a good old comforting casserole every now and then, but now we mostly choose foods with big flavors and crave-worthy veggies. We want foods that taste great and keep our brains humming along nicely.
Recipe for a great potluck: community + food
Of course, potlucks are not really about the food. Potlucks are about community — gathering around a table to share a meal in which everyone has contributed. But as I watched my students fill their plates with beautiful, nutrient-dense, colorful, plant-based foods, I knew we weren’t sacrificing great tasting food for community. A commitment to living a brain healthy lifestyle is what brought this group together. Learning to choose foods that nourish and protect the brain is part of that lifestyle. And the food could not have been more delicious.
Cooking with or without a recipe
During Brain Works cooking classes we aspire to cook simple dishes that don’t require a recipe. Jim’s cumin-spiced and roasted cauliflower with figs was a perfect example of this. As was Paul’s fruit salad, carefully sourced with the best organic produce he could hunt down. Caroline created a grain salad of quinoa, walnuts and blueberries that was perfect for this cool summer night. Patty created a gorgeous platter of fruit, cheese-stuffed dates and cheeses for dessert. (Cheese is often served for dessert as part of the Mediterranean diet.)
And Connie tossed up a fabulous salad from the local gourmet grocery that was crunchy and bright. (Because eating for brain health doesn’t have to mean cooking from scratch — it also means seeking out great prepared foods.)
Brain healthy drinks
I served two of my favorite non-alcoholic drinks to keep everyone hydrated: turmeric-spiked almond milk and pitchers of watermelon juice. The almond milk requires a bit of advanced planning (the almonds need to soak overnight), but the watermelon juice can be made in just a few minutes. It’s my favorite go-to potluck contribution – naturally sweet, packed with brain healthy lycopene (the carotenoid pigment that gives it its rosy hue), and supremely hydrating.
And there was wine, mostly red, which we enjoyed sharing as we visited in the early evening sun. Drinking red wine in moderation, especially around a table of friends sharing good food, is part of the brain healthy lifestyle. At least that’s what the current studies show: small amounts of red wine may be beneficial; more can be detrimental. Researchers are still trying to elucidate the exact relationship between drinking alcohol and dementia, so stay tuned. (For more about alcohol and brain health, see my interview with MIND diet researcher Dr. Martha Clare Morris here.)
Paula Wolfert’s oven-steamed salmon
I also served oven-steamed salmon — my new favorite way to prepare perfectly medium-rare salmon for a crowd. It’s a nearly effortless recipe I discovered in Emily Kaiser Thelin’s book Unforgettable: The Bold Flavors of Cookbook Author Paula Wolfert’s Renegade Life. Wolfert is a legendary cookbook author who is credited with introducing Mediterranean foods to America. She has a prolific body of work in her obsessively detailed eight cookbooks. She is a contemporary of Julia Child and Jacques Pepin, though inexplicably is not nearly as famous. And she has Alzheimer’s disease.
When Wolfert was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2013, she suspected something was wrong with her brain. As she tells her long time editor Thelin in Unforgettable, she no longer could write with clarity. Instead of shrinking into her diagnosis, she came out with it in public. Now she is an Alzheimer’s activist who has adopted a brain healthy lifestyle. She participates in a weekly Memory Café. Her daily routine includes movement, meditation, intermittent fasting and a plant-based diet packed with the foods that show promise in delaying Alzheimer’s disease.
I can’t help but think Paula Wolfert would have loved our Brain Works potluck party.
I may have taught these Brain Works alumni a thing or two in the kitchen. But that’s nothing compared to what they’ve taught me. They are my role models for vibrant, joyful, healthy aging. Just the other day, I ran into one of these guys while biking up the Old Pass Road. (If you live in Jackson Hole, you are familiar with this 4-mile long trail that gains 2000 feet in elevation as you climb.) “You’ll probably pass me,” Jim said. “I doubt it!” I said.
What are you taking to your next potluck?
If you are short on time, whip up a batch of watermelon juice. Or, with a little more planning, turn it into watermelon granita.
Or, you could break out the spiralizer and make zoodles with almond butter sesame sauce — a dish that always disappears before anyone even realizes those are veggies not pasta! How about a big, beautiful bowl of homemade hummus?
You could bring my new favorite salmon recipe: Paula Wolfert’s oven-steamed salmon. I’ve posted the recipe here, along with a few tips for success.
Whatever you make for the upcoming summer potluck season, keep it fun, simple and brain healthy!
To learn more about Brain Works cooking classes and the dementia prevention program, go here.
Photos courtesy of David J Swift, a treasured Jackson Hole photographer and model of healthful aging. Thanks David!