This nut-free pesto made with pumpkin seeds is economical and allergy-friendly.

The April Chicago Food Swap is only a few days away and I am excited to see the returning swappers and meet the first-time swappers. Our host for the April swap is Local Goods Chicago, an adorable boutique on the far north side of the city that features clothes, crafts and housewares from local artisans. The idea of showcasing local, handmade items as Local Goods Chicago does is perfectly in keeping with the spirit of the Chicago Food Swap, so I am delighted that we are partnering with this store. Local Goods Chicago also offers classes and events for both kids and adults on topics ranging from card-making to canning demos to book signings and truffle samplings. What a cool place!

Last weekend, I had the terrible realization that the food swap was only one week away and I had not yet finalized what I was going to bring. (What can I say? I’m a planner.) I went through a million ideas in my head based on what I had been cooking lately — caramels? spice mixes? homemade pasta? — but then decided to give myself a challenge. I decided that I would not run out and buy any special ingredients to make my swap offerings. Rather, I decided to use the upcoming swap as an opportunity to force myself use up some of the ingredients in my pantry and freezer.

The first thing I decided to make was sour cherry syrup because I still had four pounds of frozen, pitted sour cherries left over from the summer. I have made sour cherry syrup in the past and it is absolutely delicious with seltzer or in Prosecco as an aperitif. I like this recipe from Indian cooking expert Madhur Jaffrey. The amount of sugar is a little terrifying, but I have tried making it with less sugar and I did not get the syrupy texture that I was looking for.

Next, I decided to make pumpkin seed pesto. I had seen pumpkin seed pesto on a restaurant menu over the summer and was intrigued by the idea. While she can eat pesto made with pine nuts — which are actually a seed, not a nut — Zuzu cannot eat pestos made with tree nuts because of her allergies. So I liked the idea of trying a nut-free pesto. Also, raw pumpkin seeds sell for about half the price of pine nuts, making pumpkin seed pesto a more economical choice.

I had bought some raw (or green) pumpkin seeds from the bulk food area of my local Whole Foods some months ago, but never got around the making the pesto. This is just the kind of thing I do all the time, which is why my pantry is always bursting at the seams. Anyway, using up esoteric items languishing in my cupboard was the whole point of my swap challenge, so pumpkin seed pesto it was!

Happily, the pumpkin seed pesto came out great. I loved the coarse texture and the nutty, unique flavor. This is a pesto that would work well on pasta, but also on grilled chicken or as a sandwich spread. The only problem was that the amount of pumpkin seeds that I had on hand only made three little jars of pesto. Clearly not enough to swap! So I violated my rule and went back to the store for more pumpkin seeds and more basil. Oh well! So I didn’t live up to the terms of my challenge, but I do have a cool item to swap next Sunday. Looking forward to seeing some of you there.

Pumpkin Seed Pesto
No need to wait for Halloween! Raw, or green, pumpkin seeds are easy to find year-round. Check the bulk foods section of your local grocery store.
Makes 1 ½ cups

1½ cups green pumpkin seeds*
¼ cup plus 2 TB extra-virgin olive oil
3 cloves garlic
2 cups basil leaves, loosely packed
Juice of ½ a lemon
½ cup water
Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 375. In a large bowl, toss the pumpkin seeds with 2 TB of the olive oil. Sprinkle with kosher salt and freshly ground pepper. Spread seeds in a single-layer on a baking sheet and roast until puffed and brown, 10-15 minutes. Allow to cool.

In a food processor, combine pumpkin seeds, garlic, basil leaves, and lemon juice and pulse until mixture resembles a coarse paste. With machine running, slowly add remaining ¼ cup olive oil in a steady stream. Scrape down sides with a rubber spatula. Add the water and pulse to combine until the mixture resembles a chunky paste.

Care to join us for a future meeting of the Chicago Food Swap? Registration for our May 12 swap at The Scrumptious Pantry is now open. But hurry! We are already more than half full. (You can always put yourself on the waiting list if you are too late to snag a spot. We always end up taking some people off the waiting list.) We should be announcing future swap dates and locations soon. To stay abreast of the latest developments, be sure to “like” our Facebook page or check out our website.

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Emily Paster

Emily Paster is a freelance writer and mother of two living in River Forest. She writes about food and parenting on her website, West of the Loop. Emily's print work appears frequently in Chicago Parent...

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