Sweet and Spicy Butternut Squash & Black Beans
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Tuesday October 19, at 6:30 PM
My husband: What do you want to do for dinner tonight? We've got leftovers, I think.
Me: Not enough. I've got a taste for that spicy butternut squash & bean dish that Beth & Dave make. I've got the squash. If I get it in the oven now, and run to the grocery store to get the rest of the ingredients, will you make it?
My husband: Sure!
What a lucky shopping trip for me. Out the door at 6:40 PM to get 2 red peppers, 2 cans of black beans, some fresh marjoram, 2 jalapenos, and Italian parsley.
On the ride home, I tuned into my local NPR station which was running a 2 hour interview/fund drive with my favorite brain/neuroplasticity guru, Dr. Michael Merzenich. What a lucky break for me! Got home by 7:15, gave the ingredients to my husband, and worked real slowly on folding & putting laundry away while I listened to 45 more minutes of Merzenich's interview.
What Dr. Michael Merzenich Says about Keeping Your Brain Sharp
- The only way to keep building brain cells & new connections is by continuously engaging in serious, challenging learning for the rest of your life.
- It requires effort, and it has to be something that's important and interesting to you! It requires intense focus.
- If your daily work is just doing the same thing over and over again--and all you do is read the daily paper--and yes, even if you watch PBS, the History channel, do crossword puzzles, and read regularly--that won't do it. It's not that engaging--and it's not serious learning--it's the "replay of already learned skills", as well as entertainment.
- Practice makes perfect. Whether learning a new language, a computer skill, or a muscical instrument--you need to work on it--regularly--or you'll lose the skill, and the brain connections.
I first learned about Dr. Merzenich about a year ago through one of the psychology fellows at my hospital. Back in February 2010 I posted this pithy excerpt from Dr. Norman Doige's book about Merzenich's work: "The Brain That Changes Itself. Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science".
Brain Plasticity in Older Adults. Why We Need to Continue to Learn New Things
One of the perks of my job is that I get to see what all the top researchers are reading. A few weeks back one particularly interesting book crossed my desk, "The Brain That Changes Itself. Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science," by Dr. Norman Doidge. The book is about neuroplasticity--how our brains are not static, but can change and improve, even as we age. Much of this research is credited to Dr. Michael Merzenich who has pioneered computer-learning activities for children, and has recently developed memory-training programs for adults. Click here to learn more.
Writing this blog has given me a chance to take time out to study, learn, and concentrate on new areas of research--and to understand it well enough to be able to write about it. Without undergoing any "brain testing" I can tell you that my learning skills and memory have definitely sharpened and improved through blogging. I'm now a believer in neuroplasticity.
So, in light of my almost 3 year blogging experience, I was really struck when I read this quote by Merzenich in Doidge's book:
Merzenich:"We have an intense period of learning in childhood. Every day is a day of new stuff. And then, in our early employment, we are intensely engaged in learning and acquiring new skills and abilities. And more and more as we progress in life we are operating as users of mastered skills and abilities."
Doidge: "Psychologically, middle age is often an appealing time because, all else being equal, it can be a relatively placid period compared with what has come before. Our bodies aren't changing as they did in adolescence; we're more likely to have a solid sense of who we are and be skilled at a career. We still regard ourselves as active, but we have a tendency to deceive ourselves into thinking that we are learning as we were before.
We rarely engage in tasks in which we must focus our attention as closely as we did when we were younger, trying to learn a new vocabulary or master new skills.
Such activities as reading the newspaper, practicing a profession of many years, and speaking our own language are mostly the replay of mastered skills, not learning.
By the time we hit our seventies, we many not have systematically engaged the systems in the brain that regulate plasticity for fifty years.
That's why learning a new language in old age is so good for improving and maintaining the memory generally. Because it requires intense focus, studying a new language turns on the control system for plasticity and keeps it in good shape laying down sharp memories of all kinds. And it keeps up the production of acetylcholine and dopamine.
Anything that requires highly focused attention will help that system--learning new physical activities that require concentration, solving challenging puzzles, or making a career change that requires that you master new skills and material."
More Brain Inspiration from Merzenich--an Interview on Brain Science Podcast
About a year ago I also had the opportunity to listen to an interview with Dr. Merzenich, on Dr. Ginger Campbell's fantastic series, Brain Science Podcast. If you're interested in neuroplasticity and brain training, listen to the entire podcast, or read the transcript of the show. Click here for the links.
Here's an excerpt that resonated with me:
Dr. Ginger Campbell: Thank you. So are there some basic principles that a person who wants to tap their plasticity needs to know?
Michael Merzenich: Well there are, of course, but it's a little complicated. One thing I can tell you is that commonly, people who are struggling, basically have withdrawn from life and engagement in serious learning or serious brain change, and they have to reinvigorate their mechanisms and processes that control learning.
You have to find things that you can work on and improve at that are rewarding to you. You have to look at a life of continuous learning. I don't mean just reading and watching interesting new TV programs, I mean new learning.
I mean really engage your brain to acquire new ability. And what you learn has to be serious.
You get almost nothing out of exercise or activities in which you're not really focused or engaged, that don't really matter to you. If they don't matter to you, they don't matter to your brain and nothing will change as a consequence of your activities, and so forth.
And then your physical status, your physical well-being, physical activity counts for a lot also from the point-of-view of your brain health. You have to keep that up. So there are principles. It's hard to summarize them in simple ways, but I say a life of continuous learning that's important for you and your brain are really important sides of it.
Ginger Campbell: When I interviewed Dr. Elkhonon Goldberg he told me that one of the
things he does is he makes it a point of doing things--in particular he mentioned computer things that are somewhat difficult that he could get his graduate students or whatever to do for him--that he makes a point of doing at least some of those himself for that very reason.
Michael Merzenich: Right. Well one of the things we do is we disengage and we seek a life of ease, and we seek a life that's not challenging, that never really demands anything of us or very little of us.
We think that's the happy elder life, and that's a big mistake. Rather than trying to struggle with continuously trying to get across town, we buy the device that tells us where we're at at every second so we can do it in a brainless way.
Michael Merzenich: Rather than go out and do something actively, we try to figure out how to bring it in front of us in some way so that we don't have to move off of our butt. And then all of the interactions that would come from actually being there and seeing it and witnessing it or being a part of it are lost.
In all kinds of ways we do things that are designed to destimulate and to reduce our capacity to operate in the world, and certainly reduce the way in which we're growing in the world, and that disengage our brains. And that's a mistake. We should be trying to increase and reinvigorate our brains, not disengage them.
Spicy Buttenut Squash & Black Beans - Food for the Brain
The last time I had this fantastic dish I made the "light" version--cutting the oil--from 1/3 a cup of olive oil, to 1/4 cup of oil. Well, this time I CUT OUT ALL THE OIL--and honestly, I couldn't taste the difference. The dish lost nothing from the loss of oil.
"Enlightened" Spicy Sweet Butternut Squash & Black Beans
My sister and brother-in-law made a version of this for us when we visited them in Cincinnati, and I couldn't stop raving about it. It's amazing. Their version, came from Sara Foster's "Fresh Every Day" cookbook--of Foster's Market fame. It uses black-eyed peas, but I decided I liked the taste of black beans better than the black-eyed peas--and it was a lot easier to just open a can. I also cut the oil down, doubled the recipe, and ditched the goat cheese. It so delicious, that when I made the regular recipe I was sorry I didn't have more.
Cook's Note: This dish is spicy, and it needs it. But, if jalapeno peppers aren't your thing, cut it down to one, or add them a little at a time, tasting as you go.
2 pkgs. (18 ounces each) of Trader Joe's butternut squash chunks (uncooked in the produce section) Use 2 1/4 lbs. of peeled cut-up squash if you aren't near a Trader Joe's.
If you like, you could lightly spray the squash with a canola oil spray, but it's not necessary.
A little bit of real maple syrup to rub on the chunks for roasting.
A little coarse salt (or not) & coarse black pepper for roasting
2 cans (15 oz.) of drained & rinsed black beans
2 red peppers, cored, seeded, and diced.
2 jalapeno peppers, cored, seeded, and diced. (use your judgement here--but the spice really adds to the dish)
4 TBS. chopped fresh marjoram leaves. (if you don't have this--don't worry about it--but it's a good additon)
4 TBS. chopped fresh flat (Italian) parsley
Sweet and Spicy Vinaigrette - makes 1 cup
1/3 cup apple cider vinegar (if you think it's needed--you could add a couple TBS. more of vinegar)
2 TBS. honey
1 large (or 2 small) lemons, grated for zest, and juiced. (1/3 cup juice)
1 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
Kosher or sea salt (optional), and black pepper to taste
Stir the vinegar, honey, lemon zest and juice, red pepper flakes, salt, and pepper together in a medium bowl.
Whisk up the mixture until everything is incorporated. Use immediately or refrigerate in an airtight container for up to a week.
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. If you have the convection roast control on your oven, it works best.
2. Using a large baking pan lined with parchment paper (keeps squash from sticking) scatter the squash cubes in one layer. Drizzle with just a little maple syrup and rub it evenly on the cubes. Sprinkle with a little salt & pepper. If you prefer to spray lightly with a canola spray, do it now. Roast for about 30 minutes, or until soft & browned on the edges. Watch carefully, especially if you have the convection roast option!
3. Cut the cooked, cooled cubes into smaller pieces, and scrape into a large mixing bowl. Add the drained black beans, the red peppers, the jalapeno peppers (do it in small amounts if you're not into spicy), the marjoram, the parsley and mix well.
4. Add as much of the dressing as you like. We used all of it last night--but it's up to you. Add extra salt or pepper if you think it needs it.
5. Transfer to a serving platter.
6. Enjoy the leftovers.
Nutritional Information based on 1/6 of the recipe
The Healthy Librarian
Spicy Sweet Butternut Squash & Black Beans
Serving Size: 1 serving
|Amount Per Serving|
Update: Vitamin B12 and the Possible Prevention of Alzheimers Disease
Speaking of B12 (Monday, Oct. 18, 2010's post). Thanks to Tom & Steve for alerting me to this "just published" study that was published in Neurology on Tuesday, Oct. 19th, "Homocysteine and holotranscobalamin and the risk of Alzheimer disease," Neurology 75:1408-1414, Oct. 19, 2010.
Vitamin B12 may help protect the brain against Alzheimer's disease, according to new evidence that suggests the vitamin and an amino acid called homocysteine may both be involved in the development of Alzheimer’s.
High levels of vitamin B12 in the blood are already known to help reduce levels of homocysteine, which has been linked to an increased risk of Alzheimer's disease, memory loss, and stroke. But researchers say the relationship between homocysteine and vitamin B12 levels and Alzheimer's disease risk has been unclear.
The seven-year study followed 271 Finnish people ages 65 to 79 who did not have any symptoms of Alzheimer's disease at the start of the study.
During the study, published in Neurology, 17 people developed Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers found that each picomolar increase in blood vitamin B12 level was associated with a 2% reduction in the risk of Alzheimer's disease among the elderly. Click here to read the entire summary of the Neurology article on the WebMD site.
Conclusion at the end of the Neurology article:
"Our results indicate the involvement of both serum tHcy (homocysteine) and holoTC (holotranscobalamin, a biologically active fraction of vitamin B12) in the development of AD (Alzheimer's Disease).
This emphasizes the need for further studies on the role of sensitive markers of B12 status in identifying individuals who are at increased risk of AD.
High Hcy (homocysteine) and low levels of vitamin B12 are surprisingly common conditions in the elderly, both in developed and developing countries. However, few randomized controlled trials have so far investigated the usefulness of vitamin B12 supplements in preventing cognitive impairment or dementia, with mixed results.
Limitations of statistical power, study duration, and choice of target population make such studies difficult to interpret. Supplementation may be most effective in prevention during a critical time window, and larger and better planned randomized controlled trials are necessary to formulate efficient treatment guidelines (dose, treatment start and duration, target population)."