Pesto brings back strong memories of various times in my life.
To be honest, I used to think pesto was gross. Granted this was when I was about five years old and the sight of anything green made me scream bloody murder.
In middle school I made a new friend who had an Italian grandmother. She made the best pesto I’d ever tasted in my life.
It was the traditional kind with basil and pine nuts, and it tasted like the most magical sauce in the world.
I demanded that my mother make it as often as she could, and I still remember her teaching me how to make it in our tiny apartment kitchen.
This was my first experience with a food processor, and it was definitely not my last. The ingredients blended together so quickly and easily, it was like pure magic.
All you need is about 5 minutes and just like that, you have a sauce that you can use on your favorite foods or store in airtight containers.
That pesto recipe followed me from middle school through college, even when I lived in Rome during a semester abroad. I actually preferred the green sauce to regular tomato sauce for many years. (Now it’s an even tie, in case you were wondering).
As I began to journey into the kitchen more and more as an adult, I realized that the basic basil and pine nut mixture wasn’t the only way to make a pesto.
This sunflower seed spinach version is a revelation. It’s nutty from the sunflower seeds and rich in green flavor from the spinach. It’s savory and a little tangy, with just the right amount of boldness to pair with chicken.
I love the cheesy, salty finish the Parmesan cheese brings to each mouthful. Slathered on poultry and served with a few sides, this is definitely a dinner that will make everyone rush to the table with delight and happiness.
I think grilling is the best way to cook chicken, but you can opt for a griddle pan or cast iron skillet, depending on what you have available. Juicy, lightly charred chicken is my favorite vehicle for this particular pesto recipe, and it is so simple to make.
It’s a welcome change from the usual BBQ-sauced cookout offerings, just the thing to jazz up those chicken breasts that you have defrosting in the fridge. With or without fresh herbs, all of the ingredients are readily available at any time of year.
It’s also a fantastic spread for sandwiches, and it’s tasty on pasta, too. Try folding it into mashed potatoes. Toss it with raw carrots before roasting, or after they’ve been pressure cooked. Or serve a dollop on top of a bowl of homemade hummus, with chips or pita bread for dipping.
I actually recommend making a double batch, so you can save the leftover sauce for use throughout the week.
So many uses for one simple sauce recipe? All I can say is: yes, please!Print
You won’t be able to resist the flavor of our sunflower seed spinach pesto grilled chicken, a simple main dish for weeknights.
- ¼ cup + 1 tsp olive oil, divided
- 4 boneless skinless chicken breasts (about 3–4 lbs total weight)
- 1 tsp salt, plus more to taste
- 1 tsp freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste
- 1 cup packed baby spinach leaves
- ½ cup packed parsley or basil leaves (optional)
- 1/3 cup raw sunflower seeds
- 1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- Pat the chicken breasts dry with paper towels and sprinkle with salt and pepper on both sides.
- Grease a grill, grill pan, or cast iron skillet with 1 teaspoon olive oil, and preheat on high heat.
- Grill chicken until cooked through and browned, about 5-7 minutes per side.
- Meanwhile, place remaining ingredients into the bowl of a food processor or a high-speed blender. Process until smooth, about 30 seconds to 1 minute, scraping down the sides with a spatula as needed. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
- Spoon pesto over cooked chicken. Serve immediately.
- Prep Time: 5 minutes
- Cook Time: 15 minutes
- Category: Chicken
- Method: Grilling
- Cuisine: Dinner
Keywords: pesto, grilled chicken, chicken breast, sunflower seeds, spinach
Cooking By the Numbers…
Step 1 – Grate Parmesan and Measure All Ingredients
Grate the Parmesan cheese until you have 1/3 cup total.
Measure out all of the remaining ingredients as they are listed in the ingredients list.
Some people like to throw a whole clove of garlic directly into their food processor or blender. This will probably work, but you do run the risk of creating a delicious pesto with a few huge chunks of garlic still remaining. To avoid this, get out your trusty garlic press or a knife and mince the garlic at this time to ensure a smoother blend.
A traditional pesto does contain herbs, but they’re entirely optional for this recipe. I made this batch without any, but it’s also nice to add a flavorful burst of fresh herbs from time to time, especially if you have a handful to contribute from your own garden. I think your best options here are parsley or basil.
Step 2 – Grill
Trim away any fat as needed, and pat the chicken dry with paper towels. Season with salt and pepper on both sides and set aside.
Once your grilling or cooking surface of choice is hot, cook the chicken until it is browned on both sides and cooked through in the center. This will take about 5-7 minutes per side.
Step 3 – Make Pesto
Add all of the remaining ingredients to the bowl of a food processor or your high-speed blender.
Process until the mixture is creamy and smooth, for about 30 seconds to 1 minute. Scrape down the sides as needed.
If you prefer a chunkier blend, pulse a few times to get things going, and blend for just a few more seconds. Olive oil can be added as well, to reach your desired consistency.
I find a smoother sauce to be more appealing, and if you have picky eaters in the house, this part is key – they won’t be able to say no to a healthy dose of spinach healthy if they can’t tell what it is!
Season with additional salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste, if desired.
Step 4 – Serve
Spoon the pesto over the cooked chicken breasts, and serve immediately.
Leftover pesto sauce can be stored in an airtight container for up to 3 days.
Try Chicken Tonight
The last thing you want to hear at dinnertime is complaints from your loved ones, to the tune of, “Chicken again?” With this recipe, trust me – you don’t have to worry.
Super simple and super versatile, keep this one on hand whenever you need a simple flavorful sauce, or you’re looking to add a little extra spinach to your meal.
For even more delicious pesto recipes, don’t miss these quick homemade options:
What side dish will you serve with this poultry main, and how will you use the tasty sauce in a new way? Tell us in the comments below, and be sure to come back to rate the recipe once you try it!
Photos by Meghan Yager, © Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details. Originally published on March 25, 2012. Last updated: November 30, 2020 at 14:28 pm. With additional writing and editing by Allison Sidhu.
Nutritional information derived from a database of known generic and branded foods and ingredients and was not compiled by a registered dietitian or submitted for lab testing. It should be viewed as an approximation.
About Meghan Yager
Meghan Yager is a food addict turned food and travel writer with a love for creating uncomplicated, gourmet recipes and devouring anything the world serves up. As the author of the food and travel blog Cake 'n Knife, Meghan focuses on unique foodie experiences from around the world to right at home in your own kitchen.