This delicious and easy chicken and pasta dish is full of the flavors of a smooth homemade macadamia basil pesto sauce. Dairy-free and gluten-free with GF pasta or zoodles!
Pesto is easy to make if you have a food processor. A blender will work, too, but a high-speed one like a Vitamix will leave almost no recognizable bits of basil in the sauce. A conventional blender should leave it a little chunky.
When I was in graduate school in Southern California, I took a GREAT Mediterranean cooking class taught by an Italian couple – it was very popular and very hard to get in. We cooked and ate a meal over a three-hour block of time. I’m really impressed in hindsight how organized Mrs. Raneri was to accomplish that!
One day, the instructor mentioned a pesto recipe that had been in the local paper. She thought it was quite authentic and savory. I actually found it and pasted it to an index card (remember those?) and you can tell from how browned it is that it’s been loved a lot.
The pesto recipe was by the Cardosas, friends of the people I was taking the cooking class with. It was sooooo easy and good! It was called Cardosa’s Pesto, and we make it whenever we find an affordable source of basil.
Of course pesto is naturally gluten-free since it’s grain-free. I’ve always loved pesto as a coating for pasta, and feel so lucky there are many gluten-free pastas to choose from. My favorite pasta to stir my pesto into nowadays is Banza’s chickpea spaghetti.
Pesto is also delicious stirred into zoodles. If you have a lot of zucchini right now, or just want extra vegetables in your diet, pesto-coated zoodles are the way to go. I use my Briefton folding spiralizer to make my zoodles.
What is pesto?
Wikipedia, that handy resource, says this about the meaning and origin of pesto:
Pesto (Italian: [ˈpesto], Ligurian: [ˈpestu]), or to refer to the original dish pesto alla genovese, is a sauce originating in Genoa, the capital city of Liguria, Italy. It traditionally consists of crushed garlic, European pine nuts, coarse salt, basil leaves, hard cheese such as Parmigiano-Reggiano (also known as Parmesan cheese) or Pecorino Sardo (cheese made from sheep’s milk), all blended with olive oil.
Pesto starts with fresh basil
I’ve had a bumper crop of basil this year. A recipe for pesto typically calls for 2 cups of packed basil. However, I notice that during the process of packing the basil into a measuring cup the basil can get bruised. Now I gather as much as will fill my Oxo salad spinner (about 10 inches across) – which turns out to be just the right amount – and rinse it gently.
How to make pesto dairy-free
Cardosa’s recipe contains ½ cup of parmesan cheese. You can make it with cheese if you are eating dairy, but as you know I want to prepare foods that my lactose-intolerant daughter-in-law can enjoy.
This dairy-free version uses nutritional yeast. We find that 1/4 cup works for our taste without getting overly yeasty flavors – adjust it to your preference.
Other changes to the original recipe
The original recipe contained 1/2 cup of olive oil, which was more than we felt was needed. This is one recipe where you want a flavorful, rich olive oil, though – I like California Olive Ranch’s olive oil both because of its rich flavor but also to support an American product.
I notice that Costco uses sunflower oil in their pesto, but I can taste the difference, and I’d rather pay a little more for the right taste.
I enjoy pine nuts in pesto, but they have gotten very expensive. In Honolulu, pine nuts are more expensive than the macadamia nuts that are sold for baking where we buy them at Costco. Macadamias have a similar creamy texture when blended, so I’m using nuts from MacFarms baker’s pack.
Walnuts or pecans make a delicious pesto, too. For anyone allergic to nuts, roasted sunflower seeds work well.
When I am living in Denver, the best place to buy basil in the quantity needed for pesto is Trader Joe’s, which sells it in a large container (most recently for $4) rather than the few stalks I see in herb sections at other stores. Those small packages in the store are only enough for half a batch of pesto, and can cost $2-3. That adds up fast!
See tips for preserving your basil whether you buy or you grow your own. I recommend growing your own, since it’s easy, even indoors if you have a sunny space.
Should you use a food processor or blender for pesto?
I recommend a food processor for making pesto. The food processor is strong enough to chop the garlic, macadamias and the basil uniformly and quickly.
Pesto is the sort of thick sauce that can easily develop a bubble around the blade of a blender and have you pushing it down in the blender container.
How to make the pesto chicken
Once you have made your pesto, the chicken itself is easy. I describe three methods below. I usually either cook mine in the slow-cooker or bake it, because it comes out the most tender. but if pan-cooking works for you, go for that.
The only drawback of using the slow-cooker for the chicken is that the pesto loses more of its bright green color than with pan-frying or baking. But you will be adding more pesto to dress the pasta anyway, and brightening up the dish that way.
You can vary the vegetables to go with your pesto chicken but tomatoes, bell peppers and onions are flavorful with the pesto.
After I have “dressed” the pasta with pesto, I sprinkle the cooked vegetables on.
Then the sliced, seasoned cooked chicken goes on top of the pasta and vegetables.
Garnish with basil leaves.
How to extend the life of fresh basil
If you buy or pick more fresh basil than you need for a given recipe, try these suggestions.
- Freeze it. It’s best to freeze basil in a recipe, where its delicate leaves are protected from freezer burn by other ingredients.
- Root it. Place the stalk or stalks into a glass of water and see if it will root. Putting the stalks into water can prevent the softening and browning that happens when basil is kept in a plastic bag for several days. The fresher the stalk, the better for the rooting process. You don’t need for the water to be deep, as most of the roots will come from the cut end of the basil stem. Once you see roots, plant the rooted cutting in potting mix – don’t wait too long or the youngest leaves will turn black.
- Dry it. One of my fellow bloggers, Archana @foodyfables, dries her basil right around now (mid-August) as the season in New Jersey starts to tip toward winter. She ties 7 to 8 inch stalks of basil together with string, then hangs them upside down in large paper bags. After 2 weeks in a dry, dark place, the basil is dried and the leaves can be broken up, then stored in a Ziplok bag without worrying that they’ll mold.
If you make this recipe, please share on social media and leave me a comment so that I know how it went. I love hearing from you!
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Pesto Chicken with Dairy-Free Macadamia Pesto
For the pesto
- 2 cups packed fresh basil large stems removed
- 3 Tbsp macadamias pine nuts or walnuts (if nut-free, try sunflower seeds or hemp)
- 3 large cloves garlic peeled and sliced
- 3-4 tablespoons nutritional yeast
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice optional, see note
- ½ teaspoon sea salt plus more to taste
- 4-6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
For the vegetables
- 1 small chopped sweet onion
- 1 yellow bell pepper
- ½ cup cherry tomatoes chopped
- ½ teaspoon pink sea salt or to taste
- 1 tablespoon pesto
For the pesto chicken
- 3 chicken breasts
- ⅓ cup fresh pesto
- ½ teaspoon pink sea salt or to taste
- 3/4 pound pasta cooked according to package directions (we used Banza)
For the pesto
- To a food processor, add the basil, nuts, garlic, nutritional yeast, and sea salt and blend/mix on high until a loose paste forms.
- Add olive oil a little at a time (streaming in while the machine is on if possible) and scrape down sides as needed. I have seen some recipes recently that add water, but water is not traditional in pesto. If you want to cut down on oil, you are welcome to try the water.
For the vegetables
- Stir-fry the onion and bell pepper in olive oil until nearly as tender as you like. Add the tomatoes and cook until they are just starting to become tender. Turn off the heat and stir in the salt.
- Coat the cooked vegetables with the pesto.
For the chicken
- Crock pot method: Place about 1 tablespoonful of pesto in the bottom of the crock pot and spread evenly over the bottom. Place the chicken breasts in an even layer on top. Spread the remaining pesto over the chicken pieces. Cook the chicken on the medium setting for 3 hours or until the pieces are no longer pink in the middle (use a meat thermometer to check that the internal temperature of the chicken has reached 165 F if need be). The pesto will lose its color a bit with this long cooking, but not its flavor.
- Stove top method. Coat the chicken breasts with pesto as above. In a skillet on medium heat, cook the chicken pieces uncovered on medium heat for about 5 minutes or until they are slightly browned,, then turn the pieces and cook the other side. Cover the skillet and finish cooking, about 5 minutes more. Test the chicken for doneness.
- Oven method. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Coat the chicken breasts as above and place in a baking dish. Cover the baking dish with aluminum foil (or use a baking dish with a tight-fitting lid) and bake the chicken for 25-30 minutes, just until chicken is firm and cooked through. Remove the lid during the last five minutes or so if you want the chicken to brown a bit.
- Allow the chicken breasts to cool enough to handle, and slice crosswise.
- To assemble the dish. Arrange cooked pasta on individual plates. Stir 1-2 tablespoons of pesto into each serving of pasta. Distribute the cooked vegetables over the top. Place one sliced chicken breast on top of each serving.
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