Today I’m reminiscing about our family trip to Hawaii last summer, and the amazing macadamia nut pesto recipe I improvised. We loved it so much I brought home two BIG bags of macadamia nuts so I could turn it into an official recipe. Well, one bag is gone, and we’re deep into the second, so it’s time to share! This macadamia nut pesto is the perfect pesto for fish and seafood, and is the star of my new recipe for sear-roasted halibut with macadamia nut pesto.
Making homemade pesto sauce may seem daunting, but a food processor makes it quick and easy. Once you have the formula and the technique, it’s also fun to improvise with your ingredients, much like I have in this macadamia nut pesto. And freshly-made pesto just can't be beat, once you try it you'll never go back to the store-bought stuff!
Traditional pesto sauce contains basil, garlic, pine nuts, parmesan cheese and extra virgin olive oil. It’s such a perfect formula that for many years I didn’t mess with it. But when you’re in Hawaii, and you’re cooking fish six days straight in a timeshare kitchen, a little creativity is in order! Macadamia nuts and Manchego cheese may not be a traditional combo, but we ended up making three batches during our trip.
Yes, you can make pesto without pine nuts
Macadamia nuts are the perfect substitute for pine nuts in pesto because they have a similar amount of oiliness. Macadamia nuts have more flavor, however, and a distinct butteriness. When roasted, they are sweet and creamy, and the perfect counterpoint to the basil and lemon juice in this recipe.
Macadamia nuts can be expensive, but it only takes ⅓ cup to make a batch of this pesto. Look for well-priced macadamia nuts at your nearest grocery store in the Safeway/Albertson’s chain, or at Costco. In Hawaii, Costco carries giant bags of Mauna Loa macadamia nuts at a really exceptional price…it’s worth making space in your luggage to bring one home.
Manchego cheese brings it all together
The other major departure from traditional pesto in this recipe, which happened entirely by accident, is Manchego cheese. It's my husband’s favorite cheese, and it was simply what we had on hand in our Hawaii timeshare.
Young Manchego cheese has a nutty/fruity profile like parmesan cheese, but is a bit richer and has a creamier texture. It melts a little faster, and flavor-wise, it bridges the fresh peppery/anise in the basil with the buttery macadamias.
Look for Manchego cheese in the specialty cheese section of your local grocery store. Costco also sells big blocks of Manchego at a really great price. Don’t be afraid to buy a big block; it keeps a long time and is a great addition to cheese platters.
Tips for the perfect macadamia nut pesto
- Buy your basil in bulk and freeze the extra. Both basil and pesto sauce are easily freezable! I buy giant bags of basil from the farmer’s market or from US Chef Store, and freeze big batches pesto in ½ cup portions. Detailed instructions for freezing basil can be found here at The Spruce Eats.
- Balance the richness with a little acid. This basil pesto recipe is very nutty and creamy, so I like to balance it out with some acid. Because I am allergic to citrus, I use verjus, which is the juice of unripened green grapes. Lemon juice works great too, and is also complementary with fish.
- Pour in the olive oil as the food processor is running. Much like whisking olive oil into a vinaigrette, pouring the olive oil into the food processor as it is running helps emulsify the oil so that your pesto won’t separate. It’s a food science thing, and it works!
Keep macadamia nut pesto in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. It can also be frozen for up to six months. I freeze it in ice cube trays and then transfer the frozen cubes into a freezer-safe storage bag. I also use these Souper Cubes to freeze half-cup portions.
Macadamia Nut Pesto
- 2 cloves garlic peeled and trimmed
- ¼ cup macadamia nuts shelled and roasted
- 2 ounces Manchego cheese broken into ½ to 1 inch pieces
- ¼ teaspoon salt reduce to a pinch if nuts are salted
- 2 cups basil leaves washed and dried
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice or verjus
- ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
- Place the garlic, macadamia nuts, cheese and salt in the bowl of a food processor and pulse 5-6 times until everything is finely chopped and well-incorporated.
- Add the basil and pulse 5-6 more times, or until the basil is finely chopped and incorporated into the rest of the ingredients. Scrape down the sides of the food processor bowl with a spatula.
- With the food processor running, pour in the lemon juice or verjus, then add the olive oil in a slow, steady stream. Pouring in the oil as the processor is running emulsifies the oil so the pesto won't separate.
- Scrape down the sides of the food processor again and taste the pesto. Add salt if needed, and process for a few seconds more to make sure everything is evenly mixed.
- Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for 4-5 days, or in the freezer for up to two months.