Nothing is simpler than chicken breast. It cooks quickly and is virtually a blank canvas. Why then, does it always seem to be so intimidating? I’ve encountered my fair share of tough, chewy, flavorless chicken breasts. Each time I wonder, why did it have to end like this? Inspired by those experiences, I challenged myself to create a baked chicken breast that not only excelled in flavor, but was also tender, juicy and nutritious. Enter the baked chicken breast with spinach pesto and Parmesan.
Making pesto is easy. My recipe begins by blanching and shocking the spinach and basil. This is an important step as it helps preserve the bright, green signature pesto color. Using spinach ups the nutritional ante of this pesto and adding fresh lemon zest provides a lovely touch of citrus.The spinach, basil, pine nuts, Parmesan and oil get blended together into a delicious paste that is spread on the chicken just before baking. This special pesto layer serves two purposes; first it provides flavor and secondly it provides added moisture, which prevents the chicken from drying out in the oven.
After 30 or so minutes of cooking, you’ve got a main dish that looks beautiful, is nutritious and loaded with flavor. Pair it with whole wheat pasta topped with marinara sauce and a big salad and dinner is served!
Food Safety Tip: My final piece of advice regarding cooking chicken breast is this: Use a food thermometer! This takes so much pressure off you. No more guesswork or cutting into a chicken breast only to reveal a pink, under-done inside. Simply insert the probe of the thermometer into the thickest part of the breast and the chicken is done when it has reached an internal temperature of 165°F.
Baked Chicken Breasts with Spinach Pesto and Parmesan
- 6 ounces washed baby spinach (about 8 cups lightly packed)
- ¼ cup lightly packed and washed, fresh basil leaves
- 2-3 cloves roasted garlic
- ¼ cup toasted pine nuts
- ½ cup toasted pine nuts
- ½ cup Parmesan cheese, divided
- ¼ teaspoon Kosher salt
- ¼ freshly ground black pepper
- ¼ cup olive oil
- 2 tablespoons water
- 1-2 teaspoons fresh lemon zest
- 4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, about 4 ounces each
- Kosher salt and black pepper, to taste
- Prepare an ice bath by filling a large bowl with ice and water.
- Set a large pot filled with water over high heat and bring to a boil; add salt (like you would for pasta). Drop the spinach and basil in the water and blanch for about 20 seconds. Carefully remove the spinach and basil and place directly into the ice bath to "shock" it (which halts the cooking process). Once cool to the touch, remove spinach and basil with a strainer or tongs to a towel or stack of paper towels. Wrap up the spinach/basil in the towel and squeeze over a sink to remove excess liquid.
- Place half of the spinach and basil in a blender or food processor. Add the garlic, half of the pine nuts and pulse a few times to combine. Add the remaining spinach and basil, the remaining pine nuts, 1/4 cup of the Parmesan cheese, 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon black pepper and pulse again. Scrape down the sides of the blender or food processor bowl. With the motor running, stream in the oil and then the water. Scrape down the sides again then continue to process until smooth. Remove from the blender or food processor and stir in the lemon zest.
- Preheat the oven to 350°F.
- Line a sheet pan with foil and coat with non-stick cooking spray.
- Place chicken breasts on the sheet pan and season lightly with salt and pepper. Spread 1 tablespoon of the pesto evenly over the top of each chicken breast then move the chicken to the oven and bake, uncovered, for 20 minutes. Remove chicken from the oven and top each chicken breast with 1 tablespoon shredded Parmesan cheese. Return the chicken to the oven and bake an additional 10 minutes or until chicken has reached an internal temperature of 165°F.
- This pesto recipe will make more than you will need. Freeze extra in ice cube trays for later use.