Chicken pesto pasta salad is a favorite for warm weather gatherings, weeknight dinners, and grab-and-go lunches. Bright fresh basil is blended with olive oil, pine nuts, garlic, and cheese to form a pesto and tossed with seared chicken and penne pasta. Perfect served hot, cold, or at room temperature, this is the pasta salad to make all summer long!
I'll admit that I'm a sucker for a good pasta salad, especially when it's served alongside some grilled chicken thighs or pork chops.
But chicken pesto pasta salad is like a leveled-up pasta salad.
Since the chicken is mixed in along with the pasta and pesto, it's pretty much a complete meal which makes this ideal for simple dinners or lunches on the go.
But that aside, the thing I love most about this chicken with pesto pasta, is the pesto. It's fresh, bright, and full of incredible flavor from the basil, garlic, pine nuts, and two kinds of cheese.
And it's so easy to make!
How to make it
Each number corresponds to the numbered written steps below.
- Bring a large pot of salted (2 tablespoons of kosher salt per gallon) water to a boil. Cook the pasta until al dente, then drain and rinse until cold and set aside. Note: The only time I'd advise you to rinse pasta is when making pasta salad. When making regular pasta, you should never rinse the pasta since it removes the starch and makes your dish cold. Remove the stems from 8 ounces (about 5 cups) of basil. Rinse and pat dry your basil leaves.
- Combine the basil, ¾ cup extra virgin olive oil, ⅓ cup pine nuts, and 1 clove of grated garlic in a food processor or blender. Pulse until a paste forms. You will likely need to stop often to push the basil down so it can be chopped and mixed.
- Add a ¼ cup of grated Pecorino Sardo and a ¼ cup of grated Parmigiano Reggiano. Pulse once more.
- Taste test and adjust salt levels if needed. Spoon the pesto into a bowl and set aside.
- If using whole chicken breasts, slice or fillet them into thin cutlets.
- With the flat side of a meat tenderizer, pound the cutlets thin and flat. Placing plastic wrap over the chicken helps to prevent splatter from the chicken.
- Heat a large pan to medium heat. Pat the chicken dry and season with salt and pepper on both sides.
- Place the chicken in the heated pan with a touch of olive oil and sear until cooked through (about 3 minutes per side).
- Transfer the chicken to a cutting board and slice it into strips.
- Combine the pasta, sliced chicken, and half the pesto mixture. Mix well and if needed, add a bit more pesto a little at a time to get the consistency just right. Any remaining pesto can be saved for another use. Taste test the chicken pesto pasta salad and make any final adjustments to the salt and pepper if required. Eat right away, or chill for a few hours or up to 3 days in the fridge. Garnish with fresh basil leaves and enjoy!
Top tips for perfect pesto pasta salad with chicken
- The basil. This recipe uses a lot of basil: roughly 5 cups or 8 ounces, or approximately 225 grams depending on how you're measuring. It may seem like a lot but it does reduce down when blending and forming the pesto. Use the freshest basil you can find.
- The cheese. Classic pesto combines equal parts Pecorino Sardo and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. If you can't find Pecorino Sardo, it will be harder to find than Romano, you can substitute with Pecorino Romano. When making the pesto, I add the cheese at the very end and pulse just lightly after it's been added.
- Taste test. Once the pesto is blended, be sure to give it a taste test and adjust the salt if needed. The cheese is pretty salty but you may need to add more depending on your taste.
- How to serve. I personally enjoy this either cold or at room temperature. I've found that the flavors intensify once it's been in the fridge for a few hours. Chicken pesto pasta salad is also great warmed up if you prefer your food on the hotter side.
- Leftovers. You'll likely have some pesto sauce leftover. You can use this to doctor up leftovers, but it's also great slathered on sandwiches such as Italian heroes. Any leftover pasta salad can stay in the fridge for 3 days while the leftover pesto sauce can be saved for about 5 days in the fridge, or frozen for up to 6 months.
More great summer sides
- Grilled fennel salad - With shaved Parmigiano Reggiano and oil-cured olives.
- Italian pasta salad - Fusilli pasta with diced salami, capers, fresh mozzarella, and olives.
- Spinach gorgonzola pasta salad - Bowtie pasta, crumbled gorgonzola, and baby spinach tossed with an easy vinaigrette.
- Orange fennel salad - Sliced orange, paper-thin fennel and onion, and toasted pine nuts in a citrus vinaigrette.
- Potato green bean salad - Fresh green beans, potatoes, and tomatoes with a tangy vinaigrette.
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- 1 pound penne pasta
- 2 pounds chicken breasts thin sliced
- salt and pepper to taste
- 3 tablespoon olive oil for pan frying
For the pesto
- 8 ounces fresh basil leaves about 5 cups
- ¾ cup extra virgin olive oil
- ⅓ cup pignoli nuts
- 1 clove garlic grated
- ¼ cup Parmigiano Reggiano
- ¼ cup Pecorino Sardo substitute Pecorino Romano
- salt to taste
- Bring a large pot of salted (2 tablespoons kosher salt per gallon) water to boil. Cook pasta until al dente, then drain and rinse until cold.
- Combine basil, olive oil, pine nuts, and garlic in a food processor or blender. Pulse until a paste forms, stopping often to push down the basil. Add the cheese and pulse once more. Taste test and adjust salt levels. Set pesto aside in a bowl.
- Meanwhile, heat a large pan to medium heat. Pat the chicken dry then season with salt and pepper on both sides. Sear the chicken in olive oil until cooked through (about 3 minutes per side).
- Transfer the chicken to a cutting board and cut into strips.
- Combine the pasta, sliced chicken, and half of the pesto. Mix well and if needed add a bit more of the pesto at a time to get the consistency just right. Any remaining pesto can be saved for another use. Taste test and make final adjustments to salt and pepper if required.
- The chicken pesto pasta salad can be eaten right away or chilled for a few hours before serving. Enjoy!
- Chilling for a few hours before serving really amps up the flavor.
- Any remaining pesto can be saved in the fridge for up to 5 days or frozen for up to 6 months.
- Leftovers can be saved for up to 3 days.
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