Kids love to work with kitchen gadgets. They will fight for a turn on the salad spinner. They can hardly wait to get their hands on a vegetable peeler. Teaching my "food appreciation" classes at a private elementary school here in the District of Columbia, I've found that if you can put even the simplest kitchen tool in a child's hands, you have her complete attention.
There were even "ooohs" and "ahhhs" when I pulled out my mortar and pestle yesterday. "I remember when we used that last year!" Well, I guess we did use the mortar and pestle last year.
In my second lesson on seasonal fruits and vegetables, I wanted the kids to sample some extremely fresh, ripe heirloom tomatoes from the farmers market. And what better way to enjoy them than with some fresh mozzarella cheese and a pesto sauce made with basil picked from the garden (my garden, that is).
First, a matter of etymology. Anyone know where the word "pesto" comes from? In Italian, the verb pestare means "to crush" or "to step on." Hence the root of the word pestle, as in mortar and pestle. (This is how I work language into my cooking lessons. There are also plenty of opportunities for math, chemistry, biology...)
The classic pesto recipe calls for the inclusion of some kind of nut, such as pine nuts or walnuts. But there are such issues with nut allergies in a school setting that I've eliminated nuts of any kind from our lessons. I could not imagine what we might use as a substitute. Then it occurred to me that bread crumbs might approximate the crushed pine nuts. So I brought along a bag of fresh bread crumbs that I made ahead from a rustic loaf.
Before we begin the lesson, we usually sit in a circle in the multi-purpose room and chat. Cook anything good lately? I might ask. There was quite a lot to discuss about tomatoes, it turns out. Anyone care to guess where tomatoes come from? Most of the students guessed Italy or somewhere in Europe. In fact, not a single one had a clue that tomatoes have made a big round trip in our culinary tradition, originating in Central America and Mexico, traveling to Europe with the Spanish explorers and languishing for the longest time because people assumed they were poisonous, since tomatoes are a member of the deadly nightshade family.
Can you imagine spaghetti without tomato sauce?
Well, in fact, these kids can. They love pasta with cheese.
How about pizza without tomatoes?
Once again, they voted for pizza with cheese only, or "white" pizza.
How about gazpacho without tomatoes?
I think I had them there. Before tomatoes, gazpacho was about stale bread--the soup was made with bread and vinegar. Now people can hardly imagine it without tomatoes and tons of other vegetables.
Finally it's lesson time. After a good hand-washing, we meet at the demonstration table where I crack open a clove of garlic, smashing it on a cutting board with the palm of my hand. That always gets the kids' attention. We place the clove in the mortar with a big pinch of kosher salt to draw the juices out. Then everyone gets to come around the table and take a turn smashing the garlic with the pestle until what he have is a garlic paste.
Next I give each of the kids a stem off a basil plant so they can remove the leaves. We start adding leaves to the mortar, now with a dribble of extra-virgin olive oil. Again the kids take turns smashing and grinding. We add more leaves and continue working with the pestle.
At this point, my assistant, T., takes a chunk of Parmesan cheese and a grater to one end of the table and the kids take turns grating cheese. By they time they're finished with that, we've worked all of the basil leaves into our mix as well as a handful of bread crumbs. Toss in some cheese, some more olive oil. Soon we have a delicious looking pesto. The kids are anxious to try it.
They are a bit nonplussed by my selection of tomatoes. They don't know quite what to make of orange tomatoes, green striped tomatoes, tomatoes that are purple and almost black.
"Don't worry," I tell them. "They all taste like tomatoes. They're just different colors. Aren't they cool looking?"
"I don't think I want to eat the tomatoes. Can I go to the playground now?"
Nobody goes to the playground just yet. First we slice the tomatoes into wedges. They are extremely ripe and juicy. The aroma permeates the room. Then, while T. plates the tomatoes with the mozzarella cheese and the pesto, we retire to our spot in the multi-purpose room for a story.
I try to incorporated a picture-book story into all my cooking lessons. If I'm lucky at the library, the story links to the theme of whatever we are cooking. It's not always easy. Today I have a book called The Talking Vegetables, an African tale about a spider who's too lazy to help plant the village garden, but later wants to eat all the fresh vegetables. The vegetables chase the spider out of the garden and he has to settle for a dinner of plain rice.
By now, T. has assembled some gorgeous plates. There's plenty of observing and critiquing from the kids. Some pick up their plates for a closer inspection. They just pick at the tomatoes, or eat only the cheese, pushing the tomatoes and pesto off to the side. But most of the kids dig right in.
"It's spicy!" but in a good way, they say. A few ask for seconds. No, they beg for seconds. One little girl actually licks her plate clean.
Overall, I think tomatoes and pesto was a hit.