Food and Nutrition

Every Single Ingredient in This Vegan Quesadilla Is Good for Your Brain

Emily Laurence

Photo: Courtesy of HarperOne
As neurologists and Alzheimer's prevention experts (who also happen to be married to each other) Ayesha Sherzai, MD, and Dean Sherzai, MD, are passionate about spreading the news that cognitive decline is largely preventable. And you know what they say our biggest first line of defense is? Food.

Both doctors say that certain foods (like refined sugars, saturated fat, and excessive salt) have been repeatedly scientifically linked to contributing to cognitive decline. But there are tons of foods that do exactly the opposite, actively working to help strengthen neural connections in the brain. Through their 20 years of research, they've identified a hit list of nine brain-boosters: green leafy vegetables, whole grains, seeds, beans, berries, nuts, cruciferous veggies, tea, and herbs.

In their new cookbook, The 30-Day Alzheimer's Solution ($19), they explain exactly how each one is linked to benefitting the brain and how to work them into your diet on a regular basis. "Given our two decades of research, the leading recommendations we can give is to eat a plant-based or a plant-predominant diet, increase fiber intake, reduce processed foods, reduce processed sugar, reduce sources of saturated fats and focus, on [unsaturated] fats," says Dr. Dean Sherzai.

Their new book is full of recipes of how to put this way of eating into action, incorporating the "neuro nine" into a slew of creative recipes. One standout: a vegan quesadilla made with pinto beans and cashew queso. Literally every single ingredient used in the recipe is linked to benefitting the brain.

"Any type of beans or lentils are a cornerstone of a healthy diet, and the longest living and most cognitively vibrant populations eat beans regularly," Dr. Dean Sherzai says of one of the vegan quesadilla's core ingredients. "Plus, a recent study showed that when we switch to plant proteins, the risk of mortality from dementia drops drastically."

Of course what would a quesadilla be without cheese? In this recipe, cashew nuts, nutritional yeast, and spices are used to make a creamy queso. The nuts provide the meal with protein and unsaturated fats, both of which are key for feeling satiated. Cashew nuts are also full of omega-3 fatty acids, which are crucial for brain health.

Besides the beans and cashews, this dish is also full of veggies: red cabbage, corn, spinach, and bell pepper are all used. "Bell peppers offer a great source of fiber, vitamin C, folic acid and other vital micronutrients, that help fight inflammation and oxidation," Dr. Dean Sherzai says. The red cabbage and spinach are both good sources of fiber, which nourishes gut bacteria that create short-chain fatty acids. These short-chain fatty acids help promote neuroplasticity and neurogenesis (aka creating new neurons in the brain).

Everything the Sherzais cook is full of brain-boosting herbs, and this recipe is no exception. In it, cumin and black pepper are used generously, linked to helping reduce inflammation.

Watch the video below to learn more about how cumin helps to reduce inflammation:

"The focus of this recipe is an easy, tasty, and healthy meal that can be made for the entire family, whether you're nine or 90 years of age," Dr. Dean Sherzai says. "It's a nutrient-dense, delicious meal that's high in fiber, protein, and complex carbohydrates that provides all the necessary nutrients for the brain to thrive." Hungry yet? Scroll down to get the recipe.

Pinto bean quesadilla with cashew queso

Serves 6 

Ingredients
For the quesadillas:
Extra-virgin olive oil spray
1 red or green bell pepper, diced
1/2 cup frozen or fresh corn
1 15 oz. can no salt added pinto beans, drained
1/4 tsp cumin
1/4 tsp black pepper
1 cup spinach leaves, chopped
2 cups shredded red cabbage
6 sprouted whole grain tortillas or 100% whole wheat tortillas
For the chipotle cashew queso:
1 1/2 cups raw cashews
1/4 cup nutritional yeast
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp cumin
1/4 tsp chili powder
1 large or 2 small chipotle peppers in adobo sauce (sold in cans in grocery stores; add two peppers if you can handle the heat)
1 cup boiling hot water, plus more as needed to make the queso thinner

For the chipotle cashew queso:
1. Add the cashews, nutritional yeast, spices, and chipotle peppers to a high-speed blender on high, scraping the sides down intermittently, to make a spread.

2. Add small amounts of hot water through the top opening while the blender is running, and slowly blend the ingredients into a thick, spreadable cheese consistency.

For the quesadillas:
1. Heat a nonstick pan over medium heat. Spray with olive oil (optional) and add bell pepper and corn; saute for two minutes (if the corn is frozen, saute a bit longer). Mash at least half of the pinto beans with the back of a wooden spoon or fork and add to the pan. Add the cumin and the black pepper and stir.

2. Add a half cup of the chipotle cashew queso and stir. When warm, fold in the spinach and red cabbage. Turn off the heat.

3. To make a quesadilla, place a tortilla on a nonstick pan over medium heat. Warm on one side for 15 seconds and flip to the other side. Spread three to four spoonfuls of the filling over half the tortilla (about a half-inch of filling). Drizzle a little of the remaining queso over the tortilla and fold it in half to make a moon-shaped quesadilla. Flip it over in the pan so that both sides are crispy.

4. Remove from the pan. Make five more quesadillas, or until you are out of filling. Cut each quesadilla into wedges and serve warm with more queso, guacamole, or salsa.

Excerpted from The 30-Day Alzheimer's Solution by Dean Sherzai, MD, PhD and Ayesha Sherzai, MD, reprinted with permission from HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright 2021. 

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