Pesto stuffed chicken breasts heralds summer’s arrival

Diane Rossen Worthington
Tribune Content Agency

Layering flavors is a cooking technique that infuses the food with a particular flavor in successive steps. This chicken is first marinated with a pesto base and then stuffed with pesto-flavored breadcrumbs. Finally, cream and pesto are blended together for a smooth sauce that is poured over the hot, crispy chicken.

A triple taste of pesto may sound excessive, but it is an ideal balance.

This chicken dish makes a great entree for a celebration luncheon or dinner. It can be served hot, at room temperature or chilled with equally delicious results. You can also serve this at a cocktail party by cutting each piece into small slices and serving with toothpicks. If serving hot, roast the chicken while your guests are enjoying their drinks and first course. The smell of the roasting, pesto-marinated chicken sweetens the air. Remember that you can double or triple the recipe, if necessary.

Chilled asparagus or green beans vinaigrette are a nice accompaniment, along with a rice or quinoa salad. I like to serve a mixed heirloom cherry tomato salad with the chicken; it’s colorful and complements the basil. Garnish the serving platter with basil leaves.

Pesto Stuffed Chicken Breasts

For the sauce

1/2 cup spinach pesto (see second recipe)

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

1/2 cup creme fraiche

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the marinade

1/4 cup dry white wine

1/4 cup spinach pesto (see second recipe)

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the stuffing

1 cup bread crumbs

3 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese

2 tablespoons spinach pesto (see second recipe)

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

4 large whole chicken breasts (about 1 3/4 pounds each), boned and halved (a total of 8 halves)

To make the sauce: Combine all the sauce ingredients in a small mixing bowl and whisk until smooth. Taste for seasoning and refrigerate.

To make the marinade: In a small mixing bowl, combine all the marinade ingredients and mix well. Arrange the chicken breasts in a large, shallow, nonaluminum dish. Pour the marinade over the chicken until generously covered. Marinate for 1/2 to 4 hours in the refrigerator.

To make the stuffing: combine all the stuffing ingredients in a medium mixing bowl. Mix together until the pesto has been absorbed. Remove the chicken breasts from the marinade and place in a large roasting pan, skin side up.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Place a heaping tablespoon of stuffing underneath the skin by carefully lifting up the skin, being careful not to tear it, and evenly spreading the stuffing mixture. Place the skin back down and pat it to help distribute the stuffing.

Place the chicken breasts in the oven and roast for 20 to 25 minutes. They should be golden brown and crisp. If not, remove them from the oven and preheat the oven to broil. Broil the chicken breasts until the skin is very crisp, 3 to 5 minutes. Remove and drain off any excess oil. Arrange the chicken breasts on a serving platter and spoon 1 tablespoon of sauce on each breast. Makes 8 servings.

Basil and Spinach Pesto

Spinach combined with basil yields a milder version of pesto. It is sometimes used without the cheese. I prefer to add the cheese right before serving so that I can use the sauce either way. Spinach Pesto is excellent as a flavor enhancer for soups dressings, and sauces and as a glaze for tomatoes.

2 medium garlic cloves

1 1/4 cups fresh basil (about 1 medium bunch)

1 cup fresh spinach

1/4 cup parsley

3 tablespoons pine nuts

1/2 cup olive oil

Black pepper

1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan (optional)

Process the garlic cloves in a food processor until pureed. Add the basil, spinach and parsley and process until finely chopped. Add the pine nuts and finely chop. With the blades turning, slowly pour in the olive oil in a fine stream and process until the oil is absorbed. Add the pepper. If using Parmesan, add it just before serving and process until well blended. Taste for seasoning. Refrigerate in a tightly covered container until ready to use. Makes about 10 1-ounce servings.

Per serving: 537 calories; 29 g fat (7 g saturated fat; 49 percent calories from fat); 12 g carbohydrates; 1 g sugar; 151 mg cholesterol; 412 mg sodium; 54 g protein; 1 g fiber.