Our family lived in Taipei, Taiwan for twelve years, from 1993-2005. If you look for symbolism in numbers, like I do, it was a complete 12-year cycle of the Chinese Zodiac calendar. Twelve Chinese New Years celebrated traditionally with red envelopes and NT [New Taiwan] dollars, deafening strings of firecrackers, and an annual assortment of snacks from the market on Dihua Jie.
In our Tien Mu neighborhood, we ate in local restaurants that served delicious and always freshly made Chinese food. You signed off on ambience while dining out for taste. Formica tables, plastic stools, plates and bowls, disposable chopsticks with splintery ends, napkins like toilet paper, and strong fluorescent lighting–all standard dining décor. It was a good way to get the eating chore done, which we did often in favorite haunts. It was far from cozy.
Desire bred creativity so we found another way of eating with excellent menus in ambient surroundings. Familiar friends around a candlelit table set with china or pottery plates, gleaming silverware and tall stemmed wine glasses became an almost-every-weekend event. It was regular “dining-out” that happened to be in each other’s homes.
Sourcing ingredients was an adventure in foraging. There was one grocery store with more than two aisles, which we fondly referred to as “Two L Wellcome”, as that was the spelling. Otherwise, there were tiny mom-and-pop shops where the nuances of supply, demand, and restocking necessitated flexible planning.
There were several men among our group of friends who enjoyed preparing party meals. One of them was Alec. He inspired my husband to start cooking. Our own dinner parties became more elaborate over the years. Fortunately, Mark adopted Alec’s kitchen-to-table results rather than his in-kitchen “bull in a china shop” methodology.
It’s a fact that Alec operates on a high metabolism. He prowls the kitchen after midnight to down a bowl [or two] of cereal for hunger and insomnia in the wee hours. He bikes up mountains and through forests, he jogs, he talks quickly, and moves fast always. He makes us laugh when he pours coffee into his shirt pocket instead of his mouth or re-arranges pictures by knocking them off the wall. Luckily for his wife, he is the designated chef for their family by mutual choice. He nurtures both family and friends with home-cooked recipes.
Alec not only cooks and bakes, but makes jams and condiments, too. For several years, he brewed fruity varieties of brandied liqueur and tried to persuade us to love them. There were annual gifts of syrupy sweet alcohol and floating fruit. Our appreciation never ripened. We finally had to tell him we didn’t know what to do with the growing collection of unopened bottles.
Sometimes Alec and Mark teamed up for a special celebratory dinner in our home. We had a good-sized kitchen, but I learned to stay out of it during prep time. Unpleasant noises mixed with exclamations of “Oh no!” were normal. Things shattered on the floor and crunched underfoot when Alec was sous chef. Our kitchen table accumulated a series of distressing gouges and missing wedges of wood. By the time we left Taiwan, it was designated firewood. Guests were blissfully unaware of what went on behind the scenes and completely charmed by a three-course meal.
When Alec is wrestling with ingredients in any kitchen, mishaps happen. The first dinner party in their Taipei apartment foreshadowed the future doom of our table. We just didn’t know it at the time.
Six or eight of us were chatting amiably around the dining table while Alec’s final preparations were underway behind the kitchen door. A loud metallic crash was followed by a muffled wail. Conversation stopped. We peeked into the kitchen. Splayed like a fan on the green marble floor was an enormous spilled kettle of spaghetti and basil pesto. It was a vivid image of green and white on green and white, with a touch of barely suppressed laughter. Using the well-known 10-second rule, there was hurried scooping, wiping and reheating. Flustered nervous systems settled. Tableside, we murmured gratefully over the best pesto pasta that ever shined a Hualien-marble floor.
My favorite recipe of Alec’s, and the most memorable, is this homemade pesto. Served immediately over hot pasta, it is a garlicky, basil-y, olive oily sensation. Each time we were invited to dinner I secretly hoped it was on the menu.
There are several advantages to making your own pesto. It’s easy and versatile and can be frozen if made in big batches. Aside from pasta, it can be stuffed into chicken breasts, spread on sandwiches, used as a dip, or an alternative base sauce for homemade pizza.
It’s up to the cook whether to use it to polish the kitchen floor.
ALEC’S GREEN-MARBLE PESTO
- 2 C. tightly packed fresh basil leaves
- 6 large cloves garlic
- ¾ C. extra virgin olive oil
- 1 C. freshly grated parmesan cheese
- ½ C. pine nuts or walnuts [or both]
- ¼ to ½ tsp. salt and pepper [start light and adjust upward]
- red pepper flakes [optional] for those who need some heat
Blend ingredients in food processor until smooth. Taste and adjust S&P. Dilute with a bit of hot water to mix easily with prepared pasta. Delicious on it’s own or add cooked chicken, sun dried tomatoes, artichoke hearts, black olives, or cherry tomatoes.
Recipe is sufficient for up to two pounds [1000 gm] of pasta. Adjust pesto amount to your taste. I tend to go on the lighter side when adding other ingredients. Store any extra in airtight container with a thin film of oil.
I have also made pesto à la Alice Waters [Chez Panisse] using only a mortar and pestle. This is a labor of love, and meditation, with a uniquely wonderful result. For pesto purists. Or those without food processors.