There’s no surer way to get kids to eat real food than to have them help in the preparations. And there’s no better guarantee of getting kids’ help than to give them a fun kitchen tool to work with.
Pesto is the only food I know that’s actually named after a kitchen tool. The original tool used to make the sauce is the pestle. Hence pesto. Most people these days make their pesto in a food processor. But we would rather not use fancy electric gadgets in our food appreciation classes. Using old-fashioned hand tools brings the kids into closer contact with ingredients. They not only see but actually feel the ingredients coming together. Using their hands and the muscles in their arms–even in their whole bodies, in the case of grinding pesto–they get a better idea of the energy it takes to put food on our plates. In many parts of the world, this is how people feed themselves all the time: They do not have access to electric labor saving devices.
Making pesto is a labor of love. Pesto also demonstrates that food doesn’t have to be complicated to be good. And not just good tasting, but good for you as well. In addition to fresh basil and garlic, pesto is brimming with healthy mono-unsaturated fat in the form of olive oil, and the fat and proteins in Parmesan cheese. It really is a great all-around nutritious food.
Normally I don’t pay any attention to recipes when I make pesto. I just grab a bunch of basil and start mixing it with pine nuts and olive oil. But for this class I needed to be a little more precise. If you have a mortar and pestle, do give it a try. We used my version of a pestle from Mexico, the molcajete, which works just as well. If you normally make your pesto in a food processor, you are probably more accustomed to a thin, runny sauce that often separates. You will find that grinding the pesto by hand results in a creamy emulsion the likes of which you might not have seen before. The difference is startling. See if you don’t like this version better.
In the past, we have made pesto with toasted bread crumbs because so many of the kids in our elementary school have nut allergies. Pine nuts can cause a dangerous allergic reaction. But this year we decided to make a classic pesto with pine nuts on the theory that even kids with allergies need to deal in a world where there are pine nuts. Turns out we had three students with nut allergies in our four classes. We put them in charge of grating cheese.
Start with one or two cloves of garlic and a generous pinch of salt in the bottom of your pestle. Grind away until the garlic has turned to a thin slurry. Add 3 tablespoons pine nuts and continue grinding. When the nuts are almost completely pulverized start adding your best extra-virgin olive oil to the pestle a tablespoon at a time. You will be adding olive oil like this throughout the process, until you’ve used up to a cup.
Start adding fresh basil leaves. You’ll need 2 cups, lightly packed, in all. It’s easier to work with a small handful at a time. Be sure to grind the leaves hard, until they disintegrate completely into the sauce. Now begin adding a bit of grated Parmesan cheese. You’ll need a total of 3/4 cup. Keep at this until you’ve incorporated all of the pine nuts and basil leaves and cheese into a creamy sauce. Continue adding olive oil until the sauce attains the consistency you prefer. Now it is ready to mix with your pasta (or spoon over juicy slices of ripe tomatoes).
We used a whole wheat capellini pasta with our pesto. This noodle is a bit thinner than traditional spaghetti and cooks very quickly in a pot of salted water. For a pound of pasta, you will need every bit of the pesto sauce you’ve just made. Drain the noodles and toss them with the sauce together until all of the noodles are coated. If the noodles seem a little dry, add a bit of your pasta cooking liquid. Distribute the noodles into warm bowls. This will make 8 adult portions. It will feed an army of kids as a snack.
Pesto is one of those dishes that attracts people from all over the school. Everyone loves the smell of garlic and basil being ground in the pestle. The kids beg for seconds. We have to remind them that this is not dinner.
Read more great stories about how we are taking back our food system at Fight Back Friday.