We don’t use fancy electric cooking gadgets in our food appreciation classes because I want kids to know what it feels like to make food by hand. You might say our stone age approach to food preparation is a bit behind the times. But I think kids learn more about food when they see, feel and smell their ingredients up close and personal, rather than churning them in a labor saving device.
Nothing could be more stone age than a mortar and pestle. And nothing could be more fresh or delicious on the plate this time of year than pesto, the famous Italian sauce made by blending together basil leaves with garlic, pine nuts, Parmesan cheese and olive oil. Since we happen to have recently landed in the land of Leonardo on our virtual culinary world tour, I hauled one of my personal mortar and pestles to school so the kids could try this the old fashioned way.
Notice a similarity here between the words “pestle” and “pesto”? According to at least one source, the word “pesto” derives from the Genoese word “pesta,” meaning to pound or crush. My guess is there’s a close link between the name for the tool and the name of the sauce. In any case, making pesto by hand means lots of grinding–although you can always make this in a food processor if your cooking habits tend to be more modern.
In fact, the electric processor version of the recipe is as follows: Run 2 cups packed fresh basil leaves, 2 cloves garlic and 1/4 cup pine nuts through the processor until coarsely chopped. Then, while the processor is still running, add 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive and incorporate until smooth. Add 1/2 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese and season to taste with salt and pepper.
The handmade version works a little differently, as you might imagine. First, we grind a large clove of garlic in the mortar with 1/2 teaspoon of salt until the garlic turns to a smooth paste. The salt helps draw out the liquid. Then we smash the 1/4 cup pine nuts until it looks like coarse peanut butter, adding a little olive oil along the way to ease the grinding. Meanwhile, the kids tore the basil leaves into pieces and we added these to the mortar in small handfuls along with more olive oil as needed. This is where you’ll do a lot of grinding. When the basil was fully incorporate, we added our 1/2 Parmesan cheese, which we had prepared on a box grater.
Continue adding olive oil until you get the thickness you like. You may use up to 2/3 cup.
At this point, we could have mixed the pesto with a big bowl of pasta. But in keeping with the season, I opted to make a salad with vine ripened tomatoes and fresh mozaarella cheese. You might recognize this as similar to the classic recipe insalta caprese, except that instead of slicing the tomatoes and cheese we cut them into large dice so that we could toss everything together in a bowl and serve it in small drink cups.
Note: Making pesto is easiest if you grow your own basil. We bought ours at Whole Foods, where its sold in plugs containing several young plants. You can store large quantities of pesto for months by freezing it in greased ice cube trays, then transferring to plastic storage bags.