You have one big problem making a legitimate pesto sauce here in Taiwan: pine nuts. Everything else is so easy it makes my marinara sauce recipe look difficult.
To make a pesto sauce, you need nothing more than basil, olive oil, Parmesan, and garlic…and that elusive pine nut.
I’ve only seen pine nuts at Costco and, when I did, they were outrageously expensive – around fifteen bucks ($500NT) a pound. You have a few alternatives to that, but none are going to be cost-friendly. There are two schools of thought on alternatives: walnuts and almonds. Walnuts will have the closest consistency while almonds will have the closest flavor. Costco has them in bulk or you can find them all over the place, in snack-packs, for prices you wouldn’t wish on your enemies. Cashews are also popular (but may be as expensive as pine nuts in some places) and can be added exactly as pine nuts would be – just make sure they’re not salted.
I don’t make bulk pesto sauce like I do marinara, only because I don’t use it that often. One easily could make it in bulk, especially if you’re buying a huge bag of nuts from Costco. But if you’re just looking for a meal, I can hook you up with the basic concept.
First things first: basil. You can get a lot of different kinds of basil in Taiwan, ranging from “traditional” Indian basil to “Thai” basil to even things like lemon basil. What you want is the traditional basil first found in India, popularized by Italian cuisine, but you can settle for Thai basil and not have anyone except the most discerning gourmets notice your switch-up. A simple rule of thumb is: if it has fat leaves, it’s Indian basil – if the leaves are slimmer, it’s Thai basil. As long as you don’t buy lemon basil, you should be fine.
But you’re gonna need a lot of it. Like, three fat cups of it. Fortunately, basil’s pretty cheap here, whereas in the USA, it’s the most expensive ingredient. You can get it at any local traditional market and even in most grocery stores, though when you go bulk like you have to with all this basil, I have to recommend shopping traditionally. You should be able to pick up more than enough basil for around a dollar ($30NT). I hope you have a blender or food processor, or you’re gonna go absolutely insane with a mortal-and-pestle. Can you imagine making pesto back in the old days? Fuck that.
Olive oil is olive oil – garlic is garlic. Cheese is up to you. I find that it really doesn’t matter too much whether you use fresh Parmesan and grate it yourself or just buy pre-grated Kraft crap-in-a-can. What can turn the tide is a special cheese at Costco called “Coastal” cheddar. It’s a super-dry well-aged cheddar that crumbles apart; the stuff is out-of-this-world. You’re gonna drop seven bucks ($215NT) on a pound of it, but it’s a great investment. It melts in your mouth. If you use that cheese, instead, be prepared for people to take note of it – “Did you use regular Parmesan in this sauce?” Why, no – I woke up and realized that I am The Man and, as such, I did not.
Cut off all the leaves from your basil (you can use the stems, but I don’t) and sort out three cups of it. As in, three “mash it down in there” cups of basil. Like what you do with brown sugar. Dump that into your blender/food processor. Add six cloves of peeled garlic (four if you’re a wimp), a cup of olive oil, and a half-cup of cheese (a quarter-cup if you’re a wimp). I also tend to add up to a quarter cup of milk to the mix, but that’s because I prefer a less-thick pesto. A lot of people like it thick, in which case, just tell me to piss off with the whole milk thing.
The nuts are important, but not vital. Again, unless you’re dealing with some real culinary geniuses with OCD, they won’t notice the swap between pine nuts and a different nut. People might notice if you don’t use any nuts, but my solution to that is to use the Coastal cheddar instead of Parmesan and blow them away that way – they’ll just assume the flavor of the cheese mixed with the basil has outshined the oil and nuts, and you get away scot-free. However, while you can easily blend the walnuts/cashews/pine nuts with the basil/garlic/cheese, I would recommend blending almonds with the oil, first, and then adding the basil/garlic/cheese, because almonds are much harder nuts; if you just add them into the mix, you’re going to have chunks of almond that detract from the smoothness of your pesto sauce, and that’s going to make people “take notice” in a bad way. You’ll want a cup or cup-and-a-half of whatever nut you decide upon.
You might have to add some milk or salt or pepper, depending on exactly how thick you want it and how you want it to taste, but that’s all up to you. I’ve even seen fresh chili peppers put in it. Even certain kids of mushroom. Do your thing…and enjoy doing it! After all, if it’s not something you’d want to eat, why are you cooking it?
This recipe will cover a pound of pasta, no problem.
Foreigners in Taiwan: be aware. The next recipe I drop is going to be Macaroni and Cheese…
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