This is such an easy dish to put together. The various components –– chicken, pesto sauce and toasted pine nuts –– can be prepped ahead. Making the pesto sauce takes a bit of time, but there are several very good ready-to-go pesto sauces that work just great should you wish to take that route.
The secret to the goodness of this dish is to not overcook the chicken. I prefer poaching the chicken breasts as opposed to grilling — it allows the essential moisture (hence, flavor) of the chicken to not fl y out the window. However, should you choose to go with the grilling, it does make for a nicer presentation. Brush the chicken breasts with olive oil before and after grilling. Cut the breast into strips and place these on top of the pasta. After you have tossed the pasta with the pesto sauce, garnish with some extra toasted pine nuts. This is a dish that tastes as good as it looks.
Fusilli with Chicken and Pesto
4 to 6 servings (scale up in direct proportion)
1 pound fusilli pasta
2 teaspoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic, crushed or chopped fine
2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (about 6-8 ounces each), grilled or poached, cut into bite-size pieces (or use pre-cooked chicken chunks)
1 cup pesto sauce (see recipe below)
½ cup toasted pine nuts grated Parmesan
Cook the pasta in boiling salted water until al dente. Reserve 1 cup of the pasta water. Drain, reserve and keep warm.
In a large skillet or sauté pan set over medium-high heat, warm the oil for 1 minute. Add the garlic, cook and stir for 1 minute. Add the chicken to the pan and cook until just heated through. In a large bowl, toss the cooked pasta with the chicken. Add the prepared pesto sauce and toss to combine.
Portion the pasta into heated pasta bowls. Top each portion with some of the pine nuts and grated Parmesan. Serve at once.
Makes 1½ to 2 cups
2 cups loosely packed fresh basil leaves
2 cloves garlic, peeled
3 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons grated Romano cheese
1⁄4 cup pine nuts
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Put the basil, garlic, cheeses, and pine nuts in a food processor. Pulse the machine a number of times until the ingredients are thoroughly combined. With the motor running, slowly add the olive oil. Process until smooth (it will be a bit on the thick side, but do not add any more oil). Turn the sauce out into a mixing bowl. Season with salt and pepper. Use some or all of the reserved pasta water to thin out the pesto until it is creamy (the starch from the pasta water is the secret to a smooth and creamy pesto sauce).
Pat Bruno is Pizza Today’s resident chef and a regular contributor. He is the former owner and operator of a prominent Italian cooking school in Chicago and is a food critic for the Chicago Sun-Times.