Behold the power of pesto! Tender chicken breasts tossed in green goodness get topped with tomatoes and melty mozzarella to make a super fast, super flavorful supper with just four ingredients and even fewer dishes!
I spend most of my days in the kitchen playing with ingredients and testing recipes, and there are definitely special holidays and occasions when I’m perfectly content letting the creative juices flow for hours and hours.
By the time dinner rolls around, though, I’m usually looking for the biggest bang for my buck, the quickest way to get a really tasty meal on the table.
Sometimes this means using the ol’ Crockpot to work on dinner while I’m working on something else, but it often means planning meals around “super” seasonings, ingredients I can add to a dish that bring tons of flavor right out of the can or bottle without any extra work on my part.
One of my favorites is pesto, a potent kitchen companion that packs a punch with every tablespoon, and it does all the work in my Pesto Chicken to make one a-ma-zing dish. This is basically a 4 ingredient chicken pesto bake with such sophisticated flavors and aromas, you won’t believe it came together so quickly! That’s all thanks to the pesto.
The original word for pesto is pestare, which means to pound or crush, since this concoction was originally made using a mortar and pestle. Thankfully food processors make much shorter work of the task for modern day cooks.
This beautiful green sauce is a savory combination of fresh basil, garlic, cheese, nuts, and good quality olive oil.
Basil is a classic herb in Italian cooking and, along with tomatoes, emulates the beautiful colors of the Italian flag. Fresh basil has a lovely aroma, with a hint of anise and mint, and those play off the other pesto ingredients to enhance meat and pasta or make a flavorful substitute for pizza sauce, among many other uses.
The nuts are usually pine nuts which are actually grown on pine trees, but an equally tasty (and cheaper) alternative is walnuts.
The cheese is almost always Parmesan, which has that classic salty, nutty quality, and imparts a lovely texture to the pesto.
You can certainly make your own pesto, but there are great store-bought versions (usually on the same aisle as the pasta), and I’m all about high-quality products the grocery store provides to save me some time.
Pesto is rich and robust and transforms a boring bowl of pasta into something extraordinary.
Like pasta, chicken is a mild, “neutral” ingredient that can transform too, depending on the flavors that are added, and the chicken pesto combo in this dish doesn’t disappoint.
Unlike some recipes for baked chicken with pesto sauce, my version cooks in just a few minutes and all on one sheet pan, saving time even after dinner is over with fewer dishes waiting in the queue.
The pesto chicken recipe Jamie Oliver makes, for example, roasts a whole chicken which adds not only dishes but a lot more time (plus he makes his own pesto, which means even more dishes). There’s also a grilled pesto chicken option, but that requires firing up the charcoal (or gas) monster.
I use “thin cut” or “scaloppini cut” chicken breasts, available prepackaged at most supermarkets, which saves a ton of time in both prep and baking. These thin pieces of chicken are also the key to packing in the most flavor per bite and ensuring an optimal pesto-tomato-cheese-chicken ratio.
The tomatoes I use in this recipe are Roma, and you don’t need to peel them before slicing. Romas are a great choice because they’re meatier than most slicing tomatoes, with less moisture, which means they’ll bake up perfectly without leaving your chicken pieces swimming in tomato juice and will hold onto the cheese better.
No Italian dish would be complete without chunks of bubbling mozzarella on top, and the shredded variety works great to make sure bits of that gooey cheese are in every bite. I think it’s the mozzarella in this dish that makes my Pesto Chicken bake tasty and a definite improvement over most baked varieties.
You can also chop fresh mozzarella into little cubes and sprinkle them over the top. They won’t spread quite as well, but there’s no competing with the rich, creamy texture of fresh cheese.
Baking lean chicken breasts and using just a few tablespoons of cheese per serving means this is really a healthy chicken pesto recipe, full of all the good fats from the olive oil, plus the anti-inflammatory properties of the basil.
Adding a nice green salad turns this into a wonderful low-carb meal! If you’re feeling more indulgent, you can always serve this with a side of pasta, though, or some pan-crisped gnocchi.
If you have extra Pesto Chicken bake, you can also slice up the chicken the next day and serve it hot on hoagie rolls or French bread (with some extra melted cheese, of course).
Green is great – Sometimes I saute a little spinach and spread a couple of tablespoons over each chicken breast between the tomatoes and the cheese. The veggies can’t hurt, and I suppose they’re good for you, plus the greens adds more color. Although this dish is certainly impressive enough to serve company, you can make it a little more elegant by making stuffed Pesto Chicken.
Buy whole chicken breasts instead of the thin cuts, then butterfly them. Spread the insides with all the ingredients – pesto, tomatoes, spinach (optional), and cheese, then fold them back in half and secure them with toothpicks. Sear the chicken breasts for 3 or 4 minutes per side in a skillet, then pop them into a 400 degree oven for about 8 minutes until the insides reach 165 degrees.
Homemade pesto – During the summer, you may find your herb garden is overflowing with basil, and you can definitely make your own pesto to use in this dish if you have the extra time and herb.
A basic recipe is about 2 c. of basil leaves, ½ cup of nuts (pine nuts or walnuts), ½ cup of parmesan cheese, and 3 or 4 cloves of garlic. You’ll want to chop this all up pretty well in your food processor, then drizzle in about ½ c. of olive oil and season with salt and pepper to taste. You can play around with these amounts to suit your preferences and can substitute some arugula or spinach for part of the basil to change the flavor a bit. It’ll last 5 – 7 days in the fridge, but you can also spoon it into ice cube trays and freeze it for your next pesto party.
- Yield: Serves 4
- Prep Time: 10 minutes
- Cook Time: 16 minutes
Pesto Chicken Recipe
- Thin Cut Boneless Chicken Breast - 4
- Prepared Basil Pesto--Divided - 1 Cup
- Roma Tomatoes, Sliced Into Rounds - 2
- Mozzarella, Shredded - 1/2 Cup
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
- Cover a rimmed cookie sheet with aluminum foil and spray with nonstick cooking spray. Set aside.
- In a medium bowl, toss chicken pieces with 1/2 cup prepared pesto. Lay chicken pieces in a single layer on cookie sheet.
- Bake in preheated oven 14-16 minutes, or until chicken is cooked through and there is no longer any pink in the center.
- Remove from oven. Place a layer of sliced tomatoes, slightly overlapping, over each chicken breast. Drizzle the top of the tomatoes with about 1 Tablespoon, per breast, of remaining pesto. Top each piece of chicken with an equal amount of cheese.
- Return to oven and continue to bake until cheese has melted. Remove and allow chicken to rest for about 5 minutes then serve.