Pesto, especially freshly made pesto, is a wonderful addition to many different dishes. It works well as a top coating for baked fish. It makes a great appetizer using squares of puff pastry, onto which is placed a layer of pesto, topped with a slice of Roma tomato, and finished with an herbed goat cheese. It is excellent on pasta. There are many uses for this excellent ingredient.
Our previous version of chicken de pesto is a chicken salad that we first had from the Café at Spiaggia in Chicago back in 1985, and have duplicated at home for years. It consists of cooked chicken breasts (usually grilled), pesto, golden raisins and roasted pine nuts. Great the year round, but a wonderful picnic dish in the summer.
Now, first, let us be specific. I don’t mean pesto variations that use spinach or walnuts, or other less expensive options. I define true pesto to be the Liguria pesto genovese—a combination of fresh basil leaves, extra virgin olive oil, garlic, pine nuts, and parmesan (Parmigiano-Reggiano please, no substitute allowed). If you can get some Fiore Sardo (a cheese made from sheep’s milk) to add, even better, but to my mind not necessary. Some Pecorino Romano is not misplaced, but again, not fundamental.
The first mention of pesto is from a book by Giovanni Battista Ratto, La Cucinera Genovese, written in 1863. In southern France, they use pistou, a mix of basil, parsley, garlic and optional grated cheese but no nuts. Pesto became very popular in the US in the 1980’s.
Freshly made pesto is great, but there are alternatives. Most markets sell pesto in their refrigerator sections, but many of them are not great (remember what I said about walnuts and spinach). We found a true Genovese pesto at Costco, and it tastes almost as good as freshly made.
So, a new use for this superb combination is my new Chicken Pesto Milanesa
Instead of a typical pounded chicken breast schnitzel style (3 dips: flour, beaten egg, and seasoned bread crumbs), I used a 2 dip method with a wonderful result.
Chicken Pesto Milanesa
- 1 ½ pounds boneless skinless chicken breasts, tendons removed from the tenderloins, the larger portions cut into smaller pieces, pounded thin and even
- 2 large eggs
- 3 tablespoons fresh flat leaf parsley
- 3 tablespoons fresh tarragon
- 3 tablespoons fresh watercress
- 1 cup Panko bread crumbs
- 4 large cloves garlic, minced
- 1 large clove garlic, sliced
- olive oil as needed for sauté
- ½ cup pesto
- optional: sliced almonds and 3 tbs unsalted butter
- Beat the eggs with a fork and beat in the pesto sauce.
- Mix the Panko with the finely minced herbs and minced garlic.
- Pound the chicken breast portions to an even 3/8 inch thickness. The best way is to take a ziploc gallon size bag, put a sprinkle of water on the chicken piece to be pounded, place the piece in the bag and flatten with your favorite implement (flat meat pounder, frying pan, rolling pin, whatever). The ziploc works better than 2 pieces of plastic wrap (the old way). I find cutting the chicken breast in half horizontally first, then pounding the pieces gives more uniform size pieces. This is important so that the cooking time of sauté gets consistent results.
- Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a non-stick skillet, and when hot, add the garlic slices to flavor the oil. Turn the slices so both sides are evenly golden brown, and remove before the olive oil burns the garlic.
- Dip each piece of chicken in the pesto/egg batter, then coat with the seasoned Panko. Be sure to press the Panko into the battered chicken evenly.
- Sauté each chicken piece for 2 minutes a side, putting no more than 4 pieces in the pan at a time for even cooking. Transfer the cooked pieces to a heated platter.
- A nice addition is the use of thinly sliced raw almonds sautéed in butter (use the same skillet after the chicken pieces have been cooked) until golden brown and served on top of the chicken.
Try it, it is easy and tastes great, with predictable success every time.