Let’s be honest: There’s no such thing as “The Perfect Food.” Natural foods—of superfood status or not—function as team players, each contributing a unique and complementary set of nutritional attributes (a key to why pursuing health through isolated synthetic vitamins is not particularly effective). Understandably, the mantra behind superfood cuisine is to promote a top-quality variety of exciting edibles that together offer prime nutritional synergy.
4 Superfood Recipes
Of course, looking at the core definition of a superfood alone, it’s easy to see that a great number of vegetables, fruits, seeds and other plant-based foods function in ways that would qualify them as worthy of wearing the “nutrient-dense” cape. Nonetheless, some superfoods are so profoundly packed with beneficial qualities, they deserve a closer look. It’s not that they offer different nutrition than everyday plant-based whole foods per se; they just offer it in a dramatically higher concentration. Some of these foods are so nutrient-dense, they require as little as a spoonful to catapult an entire recipe into superfood status.
The following cherry-picked “specialty superfoods” are chosen for their efficient contribution to living a healthy lifestyle. Though I’m finding these ingredients available in more and more local retail outlets thanks to an increase in superfood popularity, depending on where you live, you may need to do a little hunting to find some of them. Most, however, can be found in your neighborhood health-food store, and if they don’t carry an ingredient, put in a request to the manager to bring in this new item, or place a special order (you’ll help make these foods a staple grocery item for everyone).
Of course, the earth abounds with astoundingly healthy edibles, some of which are just being discovered. But for kitchen purposes, the foods listed here have the golden combination of being readily available, as well as useful from a culinary (aka deliciousness) standpoint.
Berries (North American)
Most of North America’s native berries cannot boast the same potency as some of their Latin American or overseas superberry cousins such as maqui berries or goji berries. Nonetheless, almost all berries still rank among the world’s most nutritious fruits. As one of humankind’s very first food choices, berries function as one of the best antioxidant sources in the fruit kingdom—earning them a top spot in the ANDI rating system (the Aggregate Nutrient Density Index, which ranks foods based on nutrient density ratio on a scale of 1 to 1,000) for their concentrated micronutrients (providing, for example, as much as a day’s worth of vitamin C in just a cup) in conjunction with a low calorie content.
Flavor notes: Varying from sweet and fragrant (such as raspberries), to tart with high tannins (such as cranberries), edible North American berries are instinctively a prime food choice.
Recommended forms: Fresh or frozen strawberries, blueberries, cranberries, raspberries and blackberries, as well as local heirloom varieties, are great options. Choose organically grown berries whenever possible, as conventionally grown berries unfortunately contain some of the highest levels of pesticides of all produce.
Use in: Breakfasts, drinks and smoothies, fruit soups, salads and dressings, sweets and desserts
If you haven’t heard of a goldenberry before, perhaps you’re familiar with one of its other dozens of names, such as cape gooseberry, Incan berry, poha berry or husk cherry. Whatever you choose to call it, this amazing fruit comes from a bush commonly known as the Chinese lantern, whose papery husk flowers (resembling little lanterns) cradle a precious, golden, cherrylike fruit on the inside. These fruits—goldenberries—provide remarkable levels of antioxidants (such as carotenes and bioflavonoids), as well as good amounts of vitamin A, vitamin C, protein and phosphorus. High levels of bioflavonoids have been linked to reducing inflammation and strengthening the immune system. In addition, goldenberries are naturally lower in sugar than many other fruits.
Flavor notes: Remarkable is the best way to describe the citrusy flavor of the goldenberry. These berries have a complex sweet-sour flavor with a citruslike quality that truly takes your taste buds for a ride. Frankly, my favorite way to enjoy them is on their own, taking my time with each one and experiencing the full spectrum of their flavor.
Recommended forms: Goldenberries don’t last very long after they’ve been picked, making finding them fresh a rarity. Luckily, goldenberries are increasingly available sun-dried. Better still, their flavor is greatly enhanced by drying them in this fashion. Look for sun-dried goldenberries in natural-food stores or online.
Use in: Breakfasts, drinks and smoothies, snacks, salads and dressings, desserts
Leafy Green Vegetables
I imagine it comes as a shock to no one that green leafy vegetables are an essential part of a healthy diet. But green vegetables prove their worth as bona fide superfoods thanks to the phenomenal wealth of nutrition they have to offer. In fact, the ANDI system (which sadly does not measure many of the lesser-known superfoods) ranks green vegetables as the very healthiest of all the foods by a long shot. Consider kale, which boasts a cool 1,000 ANDI score (on a scale of 1 to 1,000)! This means green leafy vegetables are the epitome of efficient eating: high-quality nutrition at a low caloric cost. Exceptionally high in chlorophyll, these great greens also contain a wealth of both vitamins and minerals, amino acids (protein), and fiber. If there’s one superfood I believe trumps all others in terms of overall value and balance, it’s green leafy vegetables.
Note: Leafy culinary herbs are undoubtedly included in this superfood category. In fact, many—parsley and oregano, for example—are considered more than just nutritious foods, but actually medicinal agents as well. Although herbs clearly cannot be used in the same abundance as green vegetables because of their pungent flavors, including these fresh, natural flavor enhancers whenever possible is an instant way to add nutrients to a dish.
Flavor notes: Each vegetable has its own flavor profile—some mild, some bitter, some salty, some spicy—and it’s awesome to experience the subtle differences between varieties of leaves. Try a different green at the market each week and explore the delicious nuances of nature’s finest vegetables.
Recommended forms: There’s hardly an edible green leafy vegetable that isn’t recommended, but as a rule of thumb, the darker the green, the more beneficial the food. Some greens that score at the top of the nutrient density spectrum include collard greens, kale, watercress, bok choy, spinach, broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, Swiss chard, arugula and dark lettuces. Fresh is always best, but frozen vegetables are a convenient option as well. Powdered green blends (usually sold in the supplement section of markets) provide an instant and efficient green boost, and are good to have on hand for times when eating “green” is not feasible. Excellent fresh green herbs include parsley, cilantro, basil, oregano, sage and many more—the perfect garden pot or windowsill planter additions.
Use in: Drinks and smoothies, sides, snacks, soups, salads and dressings, entrées
With cultivation dating back to prehistoric ages and a long history of both medicinal and culinary uses, the pomegranate is a well-established superfood. Pomegranates contain a broad spectrum of vitamins and minerals, especially vitamin C and potassium. They are also a powerful source of antioxidants like phytoestrogens and polyphenols, and are packed with anti-inflammatory essential amino acids. Among the most important effects of the pomegranate is the fruit’s incredible ability to inhibit free radicals (a biological phenomenon that contributes to disease and aging). Remarkably, the polyphenols in pomegranates have been found to inhibit estrogen synthesis—with the oil from the pomegranate seed now proven effective against the proliferation of breast cancer cells in vitro. Separate scientific studies have also shown pomegranate to be a proactive food in lowering cholesterol and blood pressure.
Flavor notes: Pomegranate offers a flavorful, tart and sweet fruity taste at a low sugar cost. If whole seeds are used, there is also a mild nutty influence from the kernel.
Recommended sources: Look for fresh fruit, bottled or fresh-pressed juice (check ingredients to ensure no sugar has been added), and freeze-dried powder (for a very saturated flavor and long shelf life).
Use in: Breakfasts, drinks and smoothies, salads and dressings, entrées, sweets and desserts
Between its addictively delicious, mildly nutty flavor, and a delightfully fluffy texture that shouts “comfort food,” it’s not a great mystery why quinoa is instantly embraced by almost every person who tries it. Tiny in size (about the size of amaranth or millet), quinoa is usually treated like a grain or starch, cooking up just like rice or pasta in a fraction of the time. Although quinoa acts convincingly grainlike, it’s actually the nutritious seed of a vegetable that’s a closer relative to spinach, which means it’s also gluten-free. Often advertised as an “ancient grain,” quinoa is native to South America, where it was once a staple food of the Incas and has been cultivated for more than 3,000 years.
Quinoa is most famous for an impressive protein content—around 11 grams per half cup (uncooked)—that happens to boast all eight essential amino acids. Additionally, quinoa provides many minerals such as magnesium, potassium and zinc. It also includes vitamin such as skin- and hair-rejuvenating vitamin E, plus many of the energizing B vitamins. I find quinoa to be one of the most all-purpose superfoods available because it does such a delicious job of functioning as the starchy component we crave in our food, while providing truly solid nutrition.
Flavor notes: Quinoa’s flavor is a deliciously familiar cross between pasta and rice, with just a hint of nuttiness. In its natural state, quinoa is coated with a bitter substance called saponin, which acts as the plant’s self-produced organic pesticide. The saponins are easily washed away by rinsing the seeds before cooking. Quickly dry-toasting quinoa for a minute or two in a frying pan before cooking in boiling water will increase its nutty flavor—an optional but rewarding extra step.
Recommended forms: Whole grain quinoa is the most commonly used form of quinoa, which is often available in bulk. There are literally hundreds of quinoa varieties: white is the most common, red and black types of quinoa offer extra antioxidants and visual appeal, and all taste virtually identical. Additionally, 100 percent quinoa flour makes a nutritious baking ingredient, though it does lend a slightly bitter taste and is best used in small quantities in recipes with stronger flavors. New on the market is quinoa pasta, which is made using quinoa flour in conjunction with another mild gluten-free flour (the perfect example of a traditionally empty-calorie food made beneficial through the use of superfood ingredients). And lastly, delicious quinoa flakes (which are essentially a flat-rolled quinoa—think rolled oats) are a fantastic form of this superfood. The flakes cook almost instantly and work amazingly well as a cross between an oatmeal-type ingredient and a bread crumb.
Use in: Breakfasts, sides, snacks, soups, entrées
It may seem obvious, but eating vegetables is an absolute essential part of being in tip-top superfoodified shape. If superfoods are the “butter,” then vegetables are the “bread.” Vegetables primarily provide minerals, vitamins, amino acids and protein, fiber, and varying levels of antioxidants and phytochemicals. Of course, it is best to consume vegetables that score highest on the ANDI charts, but in general, there are only three real veggie rules: Eat a wide variety; eat as organic as possible; and eat as many as possible. Regardless of micronutrient content ranking, I never, ever feel guilty about eating vegetables—they always have something to offer.
Julie Morris is a natural food chef, writer, educator and advocate of whole, plant-based foods and superfoods for optimal health. Her recipes and nutrition tips are dedicated to making a vibrantly healthy lifestyle both easy to achieve and delicious to follow. This article was excerpted with permission from Superfood Kitchen, published in November 2012 by Sterling Epicure, an imprint of Sterling Publishing Co., Inc. Morris’ latest book, Superfood Smoothies, is being released this May by Sterling Epicure.