I first caught wind of the Youth Farm Project from Dan Flerlage, the spark behind this initiative and a science teacher at the Lehman Alternative Community School in Ithaca. Dan is my Mr. Lucy, the high school science teacher who forever transformed my life with his generosity, compassion and entertaining command of the classroom. Doesn’t everyone have a Dan or Mr. Lucy? I’ve met a crowd of Dan’s former students now, ranging in age but constant in their appreciation for the lessons they’ve carried with them from his classroom … and now, the farm!
When Katie Church (a former student of Dan’s, superb chef and Youth Farm Project administrator) asked me to come demo a simple, raw snack for a crew of teens, I jumped at the opportunity to visit this slice of educational paradise. I arrived at the barn, which was humming with high school students stemming red currants for their famous Red Currant and Jalapeño Jam. Another group walked around the corner, carrying a monster load of chard, summer squash still glistening with dew and fresh herbs that would go into our recipe on this sunny, crisp morning.
What I love about this recipe is that it puts a simple, surprising spin on two common, well-loved foods: pesto and pasta. As more and more people are going gluten-free or low-carb, alternative products like brown rice pasta are sprouting up. But I can’t help thinking we’re just going to find ourselves in another conundrum from over-eating a product that is highly processed. So, why not use a vegetable that is flooding the fields and supermarkets, affordably priced and healthy to boot? Summer squash! You can create pappardelle noodles, those wide, ribbon-like noodles with a vegetable peeler, and dress the squash noodles with your usual sauce: bolognese, marinara or … pesto!
With pesto, we have the same opportunity to play. Basil, pine nuts and parmesan are the standard characters, but the basil can be replaced by any combination of greens: kale and parsley, arugula, or in this case, mint and chard. Pine nuts are always grossly over-priced, so I like to substitute them with toasted sunflower seeds or almonds – but any nut or seed will do! The combinations are endless. Making pesto is an incredible way of putting up the harvest for the winter so that you have fresh-tasting pasta sauce, bread dips and soup seasonings in the barren months (see recipe for freezing and storage).
It’s not always easy enticing kids to eat their greens, but I assure you, six youth between the ages of 14 and 18 devoured this dish and helped me refine it to perfection!
- Rainbow Chard & Mint Pesto:
- Summer squash - 3-4 large
- Summer Squash:
- Chard leaves - 4 cups, coarsely chopped and packed
- Mint leaves - 2 cups, loosely packed
- Olive oil - 1/3 cup
- Sunflower seeds - 1/4 cup + 3 tablespoons, toasted
- Lemon juice - 2 tablespoons, freshly squeezed
- Garlic - 1.5 tablespoons, coarsely chopped
- Salt - 1/2 teaspoon
- Freshly ground black pepper - 1/2 teaspoon
- Optional: Parmesan - 1/2 cup, grated
- Lay your summer squash on the cutting board without tilting it up at an angle - it needs to lay flat or your summer squash will break in half when you begin to make the pappardelle. Using a vegetable peeler, slice ribbons of summer squash from the surface, turning the squash so you slice a ribbon from a different surface each time, rotating around the squash until you reach the core and seeds - at which point you will stop making ribbons. Do not slice ribbons with seeds. Save the core for chopping and adding to stir fry, for dipping in hummus or adding raw slices to salads. Drain the summer squash in a colander while you prepare the pesto.
- Combine all of the pesto ingredients, except for half of the olive oil, in a blender or food processor. Pulse a few times to mince and mix the ingredients. Blend continuously while slowing drizzling the remaining cup of olive oil until the pesto is will blended into a thick spread.
- Extending the Harvest: How to Freeze (Any) Pesto:
- Freezing pesto is easy and means you always have a quick dinner or added seasoning on hand. There are two ways I like to freeze pesto.
- Fill a plastic Tupperware with pesto, leaving about half an inch of "headspace” between the top of the container and the surface of the pesto, giving it room to expand. Seal with a lid and store in the freezer. Use the whole container or defrost the pesto slightly and scoop out the desired portion. Refreeze the remaining pesto.
- Fill an ice tray with pesto to form pesto cubes. Store the ice tray in two Ziploc freezer bags to prevent freezer burn. Pop out pesto cubes as needed.