Life, the Universe and Basil

Cathy Arnst

We all know our kids should eat more vegetables. We even know we should eat more vegetables. But thinking back to my own childhood, I could easily have been the child in that famous New Yorker cartoon: I say it's broccoli, and I say the hell with it!

But I have found the way to make all vegetables palatable to all kids (well, all the kids I've tried it on, about 5). It's pesto, that magical, delicious Italian specialty based on basil. It's not just for vegetables either--spread some on broiled fish, chicken breasts or steak. No matter what pesto touches, it seems to improve it. And given that basil is everywhere these days, you can make batches and batches and freeze it for future use. You can also buy ready-made pesto in most grocery stores, but it's remarkably easy to make, and kids usually love to help, since it involves tearing leaves, grating cheese and running the blender. It takes about 5 minutes, the perfect after work meal.

Now, I know pesto isn't all that low-cal, being heavy with olive oil and cheese. But a little goes a long way. Blend a tablespoon or so with some carrots, peas or green beans, spread some on corn on the cob, or mix with pasta with vegetables. The other day I added it to a mix of brown rice and white rice, peas and cubed pre-cooked chicken, and my daughter loved it. I use a James Beard recipe, which I've printed below, along with a low-fat version I received by email from The Zone. If you can't find pine nuts, try walnuts. And feel free to use pre-grated parmesan if you want, I often do. If you're tired of basil you could try fresh mint. If your kids complain about the green color, point out that Italy won the World Cup, so they must know what they're doing.

And if you have any secrets to overcoming the vegetable barrier, please, share!

Pesto (from the New James Beard Cookbook)

4 cups fresh basil leaves
3 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup pine nuts
1/2 cup Italian parsely (flat leafed)
1/2 to 1 cup olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Put the basil, garlic, pine nuts, 1/2 cup olive oil and salt in a blender or food processor, and blend the mixture to make a smooth paste, adding more oil if necessary. Then add the cheese and blend again. Allow 1/2 cup pesto for 1 pound of pasta, but dilute it with about 2 tablespoons of the hot water in which the pasta was cooked before tossing.

Here's a lighter recipe from the diet company Dr. Sears' The Zone:

Pesto Sole With Barley Primavera

Prep: 12 minutes
Cooking: 15 minutes
Yield: 2 servings

1 tablespoon chopped jarred garlic, rinsed
2 tablespoons dried or 6 tablespoons finely chopped fresh basil
3 2/3 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and pepper to taste
1 1⁄2 cups chopped frozen onions
4 cups Green Giant San Francisco frozen vegetables
1 cup cooked barley
4 ounces dry white wine
1 cup fat-free chicken or fish stock
12 ounces sole or flounder

1. Spray a 9 x 12-inch baking dish with olive oil cooking spray. Preheat the oven to 350°F.

2. To make the pesto, combine 1 1/2 teaspoons of the garlic, basil, and olive oil in a small bowl. Add a dash of salt and pepper.

3. Spray a nonstick sauté pan with olive oil cooking spray and place over high heat. Add the onions, vegetables, and remaining 1 1/2 teaspoons garlic and sauté for 5 minutes, or until tender yet firm. Stir in the barley, wine, and stock.

4. Spread the vegetable mixture in the baking dish and layer the fish on top. Spread the fish with the pesto. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes, or until the fish is firm to the touch.

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