My Volunteer Journal: Episode 43 – Cooking Class Almost Hijacked by Murphy and His Law

img_03531Definition of “Murphy’s Law” - Anything that can go wrong will go wrong. Attributed to Capt. Ed Murphy a development engineer at an aircraft lab. Fly with confidence. The plan was to introduce a 2nd grade class at 24th Street Elementary to the basil plants in their beautiful garden by teaching them to make pesto. I would then hand them a worksheet, which gave them four uses for the homemade pesto. Teaching a cooking class for children had been an inspired, original, and fun volunteer idea. In practice, however…

The day started to go wrong as soon as I opened my eyes and reached for my Blackberry. I had missed some emails from the day before - one from the director of the program hosting the cooking class: Could I pick up the groceries for the class they didn’t have time? Crap. Now I was rushing around yanking on jeans and trying to figure out how I was going to fit shopping into my morning and make it to the school on time. I dashed around my apartment grabbing everything I needed including my recipe list and ran out the door.

When I arrived at the school’s garden I realized this was going to be a challenge – there was a hose but no sink for washing, there were only picnic tables to work on, two portable camp stoves, and some of the most necessary dishes were dirty. As the class was marched through the gates I realized the biggest problem – in my rush I had forgotten the base to the blender.

You know things are not going to go well when you forget the one necessary item to make pesto – the blender. To be fair I could have used a food processor, a mortar and pestle, or a clean rock to beat the basil into submission, but I didn’t have the first two and I was not about to give 20 screaming 2nd graders permission to bash anything with a rock.

I stood frozen not knowing what to say to the 20 little faces in front of me until another volunteer, who just so happened to be a chef, leaned over and suggested making herbed pasta. I looked at her completely puzzled. She explained I would use the same ingredients, but there would be less chopping. Fine, I’ll take her word for it and make it up as I go along.

The class was chatty, which I expected so the first thing we did was march over to the herb section of their garden and pick parsley (last minute addition to “herb” pasta) and basil. They were gung ho about this part and soon my bowl was filled with mass amounts of parsley and basil including the roots and stems. They also threw mint into the mix, which grew next to the parsley. I sat the bowl down and grabbed out the mint and handed a leaf to all the kids within reach. “Chew that leaf guys this is what flavors your chewing gum.” The kids looked at me like I was nuts. I popped a leaf in my mouth and started chewing. Sure enough that was all they needed, they all started carefully chewing on the leaves, and their small eyes got huge. “Oh my gosh it tastes just like chewing gum!” They excitedly shrieked and they picked more leaves and passed them around.

After we had picked all the herbs we needed I had the kids wash them with the hose and then the other volunteers and I chopped and cooked while the kids asked questions and chattered excitedly. We loosely chopped garlic, basil and parsley. I heated olive oil added the garlic, herbs, salt and pepper. This was the only time I got a little on edge and raised my voice. We had bubbling oil on the table and the kids weren’t paying attention. The teacher got them under control in time for me to add the cooked herb mixture to toasted walnuts (we used walnuts because they are local to California and thus much cheaper than pine nuts) and pasta. A squirt of lemon juice (chef suggested) and a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese and then I served a tiny amount to each child on a reusable plastic plate. They loved the cheese on the pasta, of course, and kept asking for more.

One set of questions the kids kept asking bothered me.  They would put their little hands on their hips, cock their heads at the walnuts, olive oil or herbs and ask,  "How many calories in this, Miss?" and "How much fat is in this?" I tried to explain to them that things like Walnuts and Olive oil had healthy fats in them and that vegetables and fruit didn't have many calories. Perhaps food education in America should be less concerned with teaching kids to read labels and more concerned with showing them foods that don't have labels like fresh fruits and veggies. Just a thought from a simple mind.

While they happily sat munching their herb pasta I asked them to raise their hands and give me the ingredients we had used today. They named everything, including the mint, which they said, “We chewed but didn’t cook with.” Very smart kids.  The cooking class was chaotic, but fun.  I was proud of myself for keeping my cool and I hope I was a decent teacher. The only thing I would do different – I would definitely pick a recipe with which the children could participate more. All the kids seemed really excited to help cook so I wish I could have kept them busy the whole time with jobs like snapping green beans or shelling peas.

I’m thinking about going back and teaching that Pesto Class. They have plenty of basil and I think it’s really important for kids to understand that good, healthy, and inexpensive food can come from just a hand full of ingredients as close as your yard or flowerpot.

So that my Pesto recipe list and recipes don’t go to waste I’ve attached them below. Bon Appetite!

Pesto Cooking Class

California Walnut Pesto Recipe

2 cups packed basil leaves 1/3 cup olive oil 1/2 cup finely chopped walnuts 2 cloves garlic 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Put all ingredients into a blender or food processor. Process until smooth.

4 Uses for Pesto

1) Pesto Pasta

1 bag of your favorite pasta 1/3 cup walnuts 1 1/2 cup steamed broccoli 1 batch of pesto (recipe above) Parmesan cheese (optional)

Cook pasta till al dente set, drain, and put in large bowl. Combine walnuts, broccoli, pesto and pasta. Stir till pesto covers pasta. Serve with a sprinkle of Parmesan. Can serve cold or hot.

2) Pesto Pizza

1 Pizza Crust 1 batch of Pesto Shredded Mozzarella Cheese Tomatoes

Spread pesto over pizza crust, cover pesto with mozzarella cheese, slice tomatoes and put on top of mozzarella. Put in solar over and cook or regular oven at 450 degrees for 11 minutes.

3) California Grilled Cheese

Olive Oil 2 slices favorite bread Cheese (anything but Velveeta or American singles i.e. Kraft singles etc.) Tomatoes Pesto

Brush thin layer of olive oil of both sides of bread (can use butter as substitute). Put two pieces of bread in skillet and toast side. Flip bread over when brown, add cheese to one slice, on other slice spread pesto and cover with tomato slices. When cheese starts to melt put two halves together and leave in skillet till cheese is melted. Put in plate, let cool, eat.

4) Pesto Salad Dressing

¼ cup homemade pesto ½ cup mayonnaise 1/3 cup buttermilk

In a bowl stir together pesto and mayonnaise. Add buttermilk slowly until mixture is desired thickness. Cover and store dressing in the refrigerator until ready to serve salad then pour over leaves and toss.

Other Pesto Ideas:

Make Pesto thinner with more olive oil and use as a bread or vegetable dip.