An easy, kid-friendly pesto recipe that replaces nuts with sunflower seeds to avoid allergy concerns.
By Erin Taylor – Photo by Michal Bazak via Flickr
Basil loves a hot day. Give it lots of sun and a little bit of water, and it will often reward you with high productivity. Not so with middle schoolers. I’m just close enough to being thirteen to remember that everything seemed hard, especially heat. I also remember that my favorite activity at camp was called “free-play,” a glorious hour during which we got to choose what we wanted to do. My friends and I usually chose to make friendship bracelets in the shade– ie move very little and talk a lot.
The 11-14 year olds I’m working with this summer at CitySprouts are much more engaged in their garden internship than many of the kids I went to camp with would have been. They weed, water, and kill aphids with gusto. Still, they are middle schoolers, not basil. Their bodies are going through the weird asymmetrical growth that happens to people their age. Plus we’ve been experiencing a heat wave, and a few weeks into the summer they are no longer too shy to whine. Fortunately, part of their garden internship involves learning to prepare and eat the produce they grow. There are fewer complaints about heat and sluggishness when we’re cooking inside. The challenge, instead, is keeping everyone occupied throughout the process so no one tries to sneak in his or her own “free-play”, and leave the cooking to everyone else.
This week we took advantage of the heat and made pesto and sun tea. I showed Ana and Lily how to mince the garlic, keeping the points of their knives down as they filled the air with a vampire-repelling aroma. “Oh my god!” exclaimed Lily. Immediately I was at her side, but saw no blood.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“My hands are so sticky!” she held them up, “can I go wash them?” I recovered from my mini panic attack and explained that the oil was a good sign—it meant the garlic flavor would make it into our sauce. I suggested that she wait until she was finished mincing before washing her hands, otherwise they’d just get sticky again.
We usually make at least two recipes at once so that all thirteen interns truly contribute to the dish. We often take a moment at the beginning of cooking to focus on a specific skill such as knife-work or sanitation. This highlights the importance of each job and, we hope, provides concrete steps towards building confident cooks. Coordinating thirteen bodies around multiple recipes necessitates some choreography as we all dance around each other with knives and carefully measured liquids. The adults have to balance our own participation with a vision of the big picture. Catch a glimpse of a boy delivering his last washed vegetable to the chopping group? Then transition him from produce washer to dish washer for a few minutes. Is the team that made the dressing finished, while the salad team is still dicing radishes? Set any unoccupied hands to unfolding the plastic table outside.
It’s never perfect. Our middle schoolers fall across a wide spectrum of skill and prior experience. And it takes practice to look at a recipe on paper and imagine the dance it will become in three dimensions. On this particular day though, I only needed to divide pesto-making among six sets of hands. The sun tea was already brewing, and half of the crew was outside with my coworkers attacking another project. While Ana and Lily worked on the garlic, Teah and Maylie pulled basil leaves off of stems; Heather measured olive oil, sunflower seeds (nut allergies mean no pinenuts or walnuts), parmesan, and salt; Janelle cut chunks of bread for dipping.
With less chaos in the kitchen than usual, our team made quick work of the preparations. Another luxury of the small group: we all fit around the blender together to scrutinize the evolving texture of our creation. “I think it needs more oil,” said Heather, holding the oil.
- 3 cups basil leaves (about 5 sprigs)
- ¼ cup olive oil
- 2 medium garlic cloves
- ¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese
- 1 Tablespoon sunflower seeds
- salt and pepper to taste
- Coarsely chop garlic
- Remove stems from basil
- Place all ingredients in a food processor, and process until very fine
- Add oil, salt, and pepper as needed
- Serve on bread, pasta, or grated zucchini and summer squash.
- Freeze extra in ice cube trays for pre-portioned servings to use later
“Can we blend it on high?” asked Ana, finger already on the button. We worked our way slowly up the speeds of the machine, adding oil as needed, until finally it looked less like “all leaves” and more like–
“It looks like throw-up” I heard from behind me. I ignored that one too. I’m quickly learning that no matter what we cook and no matter how old the kids are, eventually someone will always bring vomit into the conversation.
After a final loud blend on high I asked the girls if they thought it was done. “It looks so good!” said Teah, so we spatula-ed the gloppy green stuff into a bowl.
Someone carried out the bread, someone else brought a serving spoon, and a third intern carried the sun tea we’d made earlier that day. I passed cups to a forth girl, assigned someone to hold the door, and one specially selected cook got to carry our now transformed basil back into the heat so that we could all enjoy it together. After the frenetic intensity of all those spontaneous jobs in the kitchen, I always love sitting down with all of the kids together, taking a breath, and enjoying what we’ve made.
*Subjects’ names have been changed
Erin Taylor is as a FoodCorps service member serving in Massachusetts. She coordinates a school garden where she gets to hang out with kids in classrooms, the garden, and the cafeteria, and talk to them about growing, cooking, eating, and appreciating food. Erin has grown food on a farm, in the bed of a pickup truck, at an overnight camp, and next to her neighbor's driveway. She has prepared and served food in coffee shops, restaurants, dining halls, and her own kitchen.