We have an abundance of beautiful, fragrant Italian basil in our garden right now, which means we also have an abundance of fresh basil pesto on hand. This bounty feels like such a luxury, and I am inspired to create new dishes to ensure that we soak up every bit of basil-y goodness possible.

This Creamy Pesto Chicken Salad is the newest addition to my summer repertoire, and it is the perfect recipe for an elegant and delicious summer lunch or light dinner.

Basil pesto is the base for the dressing in this salad and if you have a bunch of fresh basil in your garden, I highly encourage you to make it from scratch. I shared my go-to basil pesto recipe here eight years ago, and I am always amazed by how five simple ingredients can come together to create such a brightly flavored sauce without requiring any cooking.

Sarah's basil pesto recipe is easy to make in a food processor and only requires five ingredients: fresh basil, pine nuts, garlic, parmesan cheese and good extra virgin olive oil. Sarah Nasello / The Forum
Sarah's basil pesto recipe is easy to make in a food processor and only requires five ingredients: fresh basil, pine nuts, garlic, parmesan cheese and good extra virgin olive oil. Sarah Nasello / The Forum

To make your own basil pesto, you will need a generous amount of fresh basil leaves, good extra virgin olive oil, pine nuts, parmesan cheese and garlic. You can grind these ingredients into a pesto the old-school way using a mortar and pestle, or you can quickly blitz everything together in a food processor. If you do not wish to make your own basil pesto, our favorite store-bought variety is the Member’s Mark pesto from Sam’s Club, which even comes with whole pine nuts.

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Pine nuts are a featured component in the basil pesto and the chicken salad, adding a touch of crunchy texture to every bite. Sarah Nasello / The Forum
Pine nuts are a featured component in the basil pesto and the chicken salad, adding a touch of crunchy texture to every bite. Sarah Nasello / The Forum

The creaminess in this chicken salad comes from a small amount of mayonnaise, and you could use sour cream or Greek yogurt instead, or even a combination of these ingredients, to bind the salad together. Extra flavor comes from the addition of a finely chopped shallot, and a generous sprinkling of toasted pine nuts for a little crunch.

I use boneless, skinless chicken breast for this salad, which I lightly season with salt and pepper before baking in a hot oven until fully cooked to a temperature of 165 degrees. I always let the chicken rest for 5 to 10 minutes before carving, which allows the juices to settle and keeps the chicken moist. The chicken can be baked up to 24 hours in advance before adding it to the salad, and the salad can be assembled and refrigerated for up to two days before serving.

I like to carve the chicken breasts into hefty, half-inch chunks, but you could cut them into smaller pieces or use two forks to shred the breasts if you prefer. I serve the salad atop a layer of Butter lettuce leaves and cherry tomatoes that I have dressed lightly with a vinaigrette made from the pesto, and it would also be great tucked inside a flaky croissant with bacon and your favorite lettuce.

Boneless, skinless chicken breasts are baked in the oven until fully cooked, then carved into large chunks for the salad. Sarah Nasello / The Forum
Boneless, skinless chicken breasts are baked in the oven until fully cooked, then carved into large chunks for the salad. Sarah Nasello / The Forum

Elegant, easy to make and full of flavor, this Creamy Pesto Chicken Salad is a fun twist on an old deli classic and a delicious addition to your summer table.

Creamy Pesto Chicken Salad

Serves: 4

Ingredients:

1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast

1/3 cup basil pesto

¼ cup good mayonnaise (Greek yogurt or sour cream will also work)

1 small shallot, finely chopped (about ¼ cup – red onion will also work, very finely chopped)

¼ cup pine nuts, toasted

½ teaspoon kosher salt

¼ teaspoon ground pepper

8 butter lettuce leaves, washed and dried (2 per person)

1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved

Basil pesto vinaigrette

Basil Pesto Vinaigrette:

2 tablespoons basil pesto

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 teaspoons red wine vinegar

Kosher salt and pepper to taste

The salad dressing is a combination of fresh basil pesto, mayonnaise and finely chopped shallots. Sarah Nasello / The Forum
The salad dressing is a combination of fresh basil pesto, mayonnaise and finely chopped shallots. Sarah Nasello / The Forum

Directions:

Prepare the pesto vinaigrette: In a small bowl, use a whisk to combine the pesto with the olive oil and red wine vinegar. Taste and add salt and pepper as desired; set aside.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and line a baking sheet with aluminum foil.

If the chicken breasts are whole, use a sharp knife to slice them into thinner cutlets, slicing from the top horizontally through the middle. If they are already cut into halves, leave them as they are.

Place the chicken breasts on the prepared baking sheet. Drizzle lightly with olive oil and a light sprinkling of kosher salt and ground pepper. Bake the chicken in the center of the oven until an internal temperature of 165 degrees is achieved, about 12 to 15 minutes. When done, the juices should run clear on the baking sheet, and the center of each breast should be opaque.

Remove the chicken from the oven and place a piece of foil loosely over the tray. Let rest for 10 minutes before carving into half-inch chunks.

In the meantime, in a medium bowl, add the pesto, mayonnaise and shallots. Use a wooden spoon or rubber spatula to stir until well combined. Add the chicken and toss until well coated. Add the pine nuts and toss again until evenly distributed.

To serve: Layer each plate with 2 of the butter lettuce leaves, and a scattering of the cherry tomato halves. Drizzle with the pesto vinaigrette and then top with the chicken salad.

To store: Place the chicken salad in an airtight container and refrigerate for up to 3 days. If the salad seems a little dry after the first day, stir in a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil or vegetable oil.

Sarah’s Tips:

  • The chicken breast can be baked up to 24 hours in advance, wrapped tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerated before carving and adding it to the salad.
  • This chicken salad would also be great tucked inside a flaky croissant with bacon, avocado and lettuce.
  • Large Romaine or Green Leaf lettuce leaves may be substituted for the Butter lettuce.
  • For an even creamier version, add one avocado, small diced or smashed, into the salad at the same time as the mayonnaise and pesto.
  • To toast the pine nuts, place them in a small pan over medium-low heat, stirring frequently until lightly browned and fragrant, about 5 to 7 minutes.

An abundance of fresh basil in Sarah's garden is the inspiration for her Creamy Pesto Chicken Salad recipe. Sarah Nasello / The Forum
An abundance of fresh basil in Sarah's garden is the inspiration for her Creamy Pesto Chicken Salad recipe. Sarah Nasello / The Forum

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“Home with the Lost Italian” is a weekly column written by Sarah Nasello featuring recipes by her husband, Tony Nasello. The couple owned Sarello’s in Moorhead and lives in Fargo with their son, Giovanni. Readers can reach them at sarahnasello@gmail.com.