An Italian chef demonstrates how to make Perfect Pesto using fresh basil grown on the roof of my flat in rural Hong Kong. Watch the video clip above – or scroll down for a text version of the recipe.
It’s always been my dream to have an herb garden, but I’ve never had much luck growing the small number of herb plants on sale at supermarkets in Hong Kong.
First of all, they’re expensive. Secondly, they usually die within a couple of weeks.
Trips to the Flower Mart in Mongkok were no help. There simply isn’t much in the way of herb plants or seeds on sale there.
But all that changed about about 13 months ago …
On Christmas Eve 2015, I attended a Flower Market at a public park in the New Territories, where a stand was selling basil plants, rosemary plants, lemon mint plants, and a few other items.
Owing to the reasonable price, I bought three basil plants for HK$25 – roughly US$3 (or US$1 apiece)!
The basil plants hardly survived a very brutal winter – the coldest winter in more than a century.
Then the the basil plants suffered an infestation.
Based on advice I read somewhere, I washed the plants with a mixture of water and dish-washing detergent.
Yes, believe me, it really works! No harsh chemicals are needed – just simple soap and water.
Then I trimmed the branches back very severely before leaving on a four-week trip. I had someone water the plants for me twice a week while I was gone.
Would the plants survive my one-month absense?
I was prepared for the worst.
Upon my return four weeks later, I braced myself before walking up to my roof.
But much to my surprise, my basil plants were flourishing. The tiny little plants I had transplanted half a year earlier had grown into luxuriant bushes!
A year later, and I’ve got basil leaves coming out of my ears!
“What the heck am I going to do with so many basil leaves?” I posted on Facebook.
Among the many suggestions I got was, “Make pesto!”
I googled “pesto recipe” and came up with several recipes, and they were all pretty similar.
The recipes all basically called for basil, Parmesan cheese, garlic, pine nuts, and salt.
“I can handle that,” I thought.
First I went to the supermarket to purchase the pine nuts and the cheese.
Then I went to the roof, pruning my basil plants two leaves below the blossoms as an Australian friend had suggested.
The yield? Roughly four cups of packed basil leaves.
I washed and dried them and put all of the ingredients into a blender. It was a bit difficult at first. I had to keep stopping the blender to push the leaves back down into the blades.
The minute I re-started the blender, the mixture would simply fly back up, and I'd have to stop the blender again.
But eventually I ended up with about two cups of pesto.
To be honest, I wasn't overly impressed with the taste. It reminded me of the way a lawn smells just after it has been mowed.
“Time to call in the professionals,” I thought.
I messaged a friend at the Epicurean Group, which operates numerous food and beverage outlets across Hong Kong, asking if there were any Italian chefs that could teach me how to make pesto.
She arranged a Master Class in Pesto Making with Brian Moore, Group Executive Chef for the Epicurean Group, a hospitality, management, and consultancy services provider.
We arranged an appointment for a few days later. The day of the class, I went back to my roof.
There were lots more flowers blooming, and I picked lots more leaves.
The class took place in the kitchen of Osteria Felice, an Italian eatery in Hutchinson House in Central on Hong Kong Island.
How to Make Perfect Pesto
- 2 cups fresh basil leaves
- 1 cup English spinach
- ½ cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- ¼ cup Vegetable Oil
- 3 tablespoons pine nuts
- 2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
- Sea salt to taste
- Fresh black pepper to taste
- Boiling water to stabilize
- Pick and wash basil and spinach leaves and spin dry; put aside;
- Heat olive oil and pine nuts in a saucepan, gently simmer until pine nuts are golden brown; let cool to infuse the oil with a nutty flavour;
- Blanch HALF of basil and spinach leaves in boiling water (roughly 30 second);
- Put blanched basil into a blender or food processor and blend (you might have to stop the blender several time and push the leaves into the blades);
- Add the raw basil, cheese, salt, and pepper and continue blending while adding the pine nuts and olive oil you cooked the pine nuts in;
- Add the vegetable oil and continue to blend, stopping occasionally to clean the sides of the blender;
- Add some boiling water to the mixture to help it stabilize;
- Taste and adjust seasoning in needed;
- Pass through a fine sieve;
- Place into an airtight container and refrigerate. It is ready to serve.
Teaching me how to make perfect pesto wasn't enough. Chef Bruce also wanted to share with me a recipe so that I would know what to do with it.
- 8 cups desire potatoes
- 4 cps plain flour
- 8 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
- Fresh grated nutmeg to taste
- Fresh black pepper to taste
- Sea salt to taste
- Peel potatoes, place in ot with cold water, add salt, and boil until cooked;
- Drain the potatoes and a colander and place in a warm place;
- Sift flour and grate Parmesan cheese;
- Place potatoes in a mouli or ricer, mouli potatoes into a large bowl;
- While the potatoes are still warm, gently mix all ingredients until they combine into a soft dough-like texture;
- Roll out and cut, blanch i boiling water (when gnocchi starts to float, after about 30 seconds);
- Remove from boiling wager and add to an ice bath to cool down;
- After 10 minutes, remove from ice bath, drain, dry, and place in a container.
- Add a small amount of oil and refrigerate. Ready for service.
Pan-seared Potato Gnocchi
With Cotechino Sausage, House Dried Tomatoes, and Basil Sauce
- 9 pieces of house-made potato gnocchi
- 3 pieces of house-dried Roma tomatoes
- 3 pieces of cotechino sausage
- 10 leaves of Italian wild rocket
- House made Italian pesto
- Sea salt to taste
- Black pepper to taste
- Olive oil
- Plan fry the gnocchi with olive oil until all sides are golden brown;
- Pan-sear cotechino sausage;
- Place on a paper towel to drain excess oil;
- Season the gnocchi.
- Place basil pesto on the plate in a circular format;
- Construct the gnocchi and sausage on top of the pesto;
- Add some house-dried tomatoes and wild rocket leaves on top;
- Season and serve.
I couldn't wait to try this recipe at home. Since I didn't have two of the key ingredients, I decided to improvise.
I'm a free spirit, so I almost NEVER follow a recipe to the letter.
I didn't have any potatoes, but I did have some tortellini. And much less work – I didn't have to make them!
I also didn't have any cotechino sausage, but I did have some beef sausage.
I figured, "What the heck?"
While the tortellini were boiling, I fried the beef sausage and threw in some finely diced onions as well as some finely diced red and bell peppers.
In addition to the sun-dried tomatoes, I added a dab of double concentrated tomato puree.
Chef Brian's version was more sophisticated, mine was more rustic.
Does that mean I've got peasant roots? Or does it mean Chef Brian is a skilled chef, and I'm not?
Needless to say, I WILL buy potatoes next time I have the chance and follow Chef Brian's recipe for potato gnocchi.
But I DO think that a basic recipe like this CAN be played with, which is the beauty of it!
And I DO plan on cooking it often!
Osteria Felice, Ground Floor, Hutchinson House, 10 Harcourt Road, Central, Hong Kong. Telephone: (852) 2516-6166.