Pesto is a rich and flavourful sauce made from pounding fresh basil leaves, garlic, pine nuts, Parmigiano-Reggiano and Pecorino Romano cheeses and extra-virgin olive oil. The word “pesto” is Italian and it means “to pound or to crush”. This sauce is not cooked and can be made and refrigerated for a week.
The nuts and olive oil in this sauce make it rich in good fats, which are beneficial for heart health. The basil, garlic, olive oil and nuts are high in antioxidants, which protect cells from oxidative stress.
Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is made from unpasteurized raw milk with no additives or preservatives and so is considered a natural and healthy product. It has high protein content and it may also be rich in probiotics and good for digestive health. The Pecorino Romano cheese is made from 100% sheep’s milk and so is easier to digest. It has a salty and nutty flavour.
You can serve the pesto sauce with pasta or even as a sauce over meats. I have used it with chicken breasts in this recipe and cooked it over a bed of spinach and cherry tomatoes. You can also use zucchini, peppers and tomatoes or any other vegetables of your choice.
The pasta is an addition and it can be replaced by brown rice. I used pasta as I had fresh pasta made from free range egg.
I use a mortar and pestle to pound the ingredients as I love the control I have over the consistency of the paste. However, you can use a food processor, which is faster and can be more efficient.
Fresh sweet Italian basil leaves – 4 cups
Pine nuts – 1/3 cup
Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese – 1/2 cup
Pecorino Romano cheese – 1/2 cup
Extra virgin olive oil – 1/4 cup
Garlic cloves – 2
Black pepper – 1/2 tsp
Olive oil – 4 tbsp
Garlic cloves – 4
Dried red chilli pepper – 1 tsp
Sea salt – 1/2 tsp
Frozen whole leaf organic spinach – 400 gms
Organic heritage cherry tomatoes – 10
Cooking the Chicken
Chicken Breasts – 600 gms
Olive oil – 1 tbsp
Sea salt – 1/2 tsp
Cracked black pepper – 1/2 tsp
Preparing the Pesto Sauce:
- Remove the stems from the basil leaves
- Add the leaves in a mortar and sprinkle some sea salt
- Pound the leaves with a pestle
- Add the garlic and pound into the basil
- Add the pine nuts
- Add the cheese and olive oil gradually
- Sprinkle in the black pepper
- Keep pounding and mixing all of the above until it is a paste
- Alternatively, add the basil leaves, garlic, pine nuts, cheeses and olive oil into a food processor
Sautéing the Spinach
- Add olive oil to a small sauce pan with the whole garlic pods and the red chilli pepper and salt and let it cook until the pods are soft
- Pour 2 tbsps of this garlic and chilli infused oil into a pan and then throw in the spinach leaves and cook slowly for a 3-4 minutes and remove from the pan
Cooking the chicken
- Rub the chicken breasts with salt and pepper
- Drizzle the olive oil into a skillet and heat on low fire
- The chicken breasts should be sliced horizontally to give them a 1.5 inch thickness
- Place the chicken breasts in the heated oil and cook for two minutes on each side and remove from the pan
Cooking the chicken pesto
- Pour the rest of the garlic and chilli infused olive oil in a skillet
- Place the spinach at the bottom and throw in the cherry tomatoes
- Place the chicken on top and cover and cook for a further 3 mins
- Spread the pesto sauce over the chicken and cover for 2 minutes
- Cook the pasta separately and drizzle some extra virgin olive oil over and twist into coils
- Remove the cover and then sprinkle some toasted pine nuts, grated cheese and basil leaves on top of the chicken pesto and serve with the pasta coils in the skillet!