Pesto pasta salad is a fantastically bright and flavorful offering filled with the flavors of the summer season. Tossed together with my zippy lemon-basil pesto sauce, then topped with grilled lemon chicken, with an extra sprinkle of pine nuts and shaved parmesan, this pesto pasta salad recipe is a terrific meal when something cool and refreshing is what you crave!
A Little Bit of Sunshine in a Bowl
Friends, the summer season was made for cool, bright, and refreshing pasta salads!
The idea of tender, twisty noodles tossed together with a zesty dressing made from vibrant herbs, a kiss of tang from fresh citrus, plus a sprinkle of cheese and a bit of rich olive oil seems like heaven to me when I'm craving a light meal with a cool edge to beat the heat.
My pesto pasta salad recipe has been a favorite summertime recipe of ours for years, what with its bright and sunny flavors and enticing green hue from the homemade pesto that it's combined with.
Prepared with one of my favorite fun and twisty pastas called “cellentani” pasta (interchangeable with “cavatappi” pasta), plus tender slices of grilled lemon chicken, toasted pine nuts, and an additional shaving of good quality parmesan cheese, this simple yet elegant little pasta salad recipe always makes our tastebuds happy.
Perfect to take out for a picnic lunch under the sun, an afternoon snack or a light evening meal, it's most definitely a little taste of sunshine in a bowl!
My Pesto Pasta Salad with Lemon Chicken
For me, a big part of the fun of preparing cool pasta salads is all the pretty and whimsical pasta shapes to choose from!
One could use all sort of pasta varieties to prepare pasta salad, but for my taste, the twistier the pasta the better...
For my pesto pasta salad recipe here, I love to use cellentani pasta, or even rotini or fusilli, because the fresh lemon-basil pesto sauce gets all cozied up in all of the twisty nooks and crannies, which equals more flavor in every bite.
I also really enjoy topping my pasta salad with slices of garlicky and lemony grilled chicken for added protein and mouthwatering flavor, plus an extra sprinkle of those pine nuts that I use in the pesto dressing itself.
It's all of these little extras, these “bells and whistles”, that make this pesto pasta salad such a summertime favorite!
Here's a sneak peek at my pesto pasta salad recipe: (or just jump to the full recipe...)
- To get started, I cook my pasta noodles according to package instructions and rinse under cool water, then set them aside.
- While my pasta cooks, I prepare my homemade lemon-basil pesto sauce in my food processor, and keep it in a covered container in the fridge until ready to use.
- Next, I season and then grill my chicken breasts until cooked through, and then slice them into strips.
- To assemble the pesto pasta salad, I toss my cooked pasta with my pesto sauce, spoon it into a large serving bowl or into individual plates or bowls, then top with some of the grilled lemon chicken and pine nuts, plus additional parmesan cheese for garnish.
Pesto Pasta Salad
by Ingrid Beer
This pesto pasta salad is bright and refreshing, topped with grilled lemon chicken, toasted pine nuts and shaved parmesan!
Yield: Serves 4
Nutrition Info: 649 calories per serving
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook time: 20 minutes
Total time: 50 minutes
Pesto Pasta Salad Ingredients:
- 8 ounces (half of a 1 pound bag) cellentani pasta, or other twisty pasta
- 4 ounces fresh basil, stems removed
- 3 cloves fresh garlic
- 1 tablespoon lemon zest
- ¼ cup fresh lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon (slightly generous) salt
- ¼ teaspoon black pepper
- 2 tablespoons toasted pine nuts, plus 2 tablespoons for garnish
- ¼ cup grated parmesan cheese, plus 2 tablespoons for garnish
- ½ cup olive oil
- 1 lemon cut into 4 wedges for garnish
Grilled Lemon Chicken Ingredients:
- 2 skinless, boneless chicken breasts
- 2 cloves garlic, pressed through garlic press
- Black pepper
- ½ teaspoon Italian seasoning
- ½ teaspoon lemon zest
- 1 teaspoon lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- To begin, gather and prep all of your pesto pasta salad ingredients according to the ingredient list above to have ready and organized for use.
- Cook your pasta according to package instructions, then drain and rinse under cold water. Hold until ready to dress.
- To prepare your lemon-basil pesto dressing, add the basil leaves as well as the remainder of the ingredients up to and including the ¼ cup parmesan cheese to the bowl of a food processor, and pulse a few times to process. With the processor running, slowly drizzle in the ½ cup of olive oil until well blended, about 2 minutes. Keep in a covered container in the fridge until ready to dress the pasta salad.
- Next, gather and prep all of your grilled lemon chicken ingredients according to the ingredient list above to have ready and organized for use.
- To prepare your chicken, add the breasts to a bowl along with the garlic, a couple of good pinches of salt and black pepper, the Italian seasoning, the lemon zest and juice, plus the olive oil, and rub into the chicken to incorporate.
- Place a grill pan over medium-high heat, and grill each breast for about 6-8 minutes per side (depending on the thickness and size of the breasts), or until cooked through.
- Once cooked, set aside to cool slightly and then slice the chicken breasts into strips.
- To assemble the pesto pasta salad, add the cooked pasta to a large bowl and pour the lemon-basil pesto over top. Toss to thoroughly coat and then taste to see if any additional salt or pepper is needed.
- Spoon the pesto pasta salad either into a large serving bowl, or equally into individual plates or bowls, add equal amounts of grilled lemon chicken to the salad, and garnish with about a ½ tablespoon of the pine nuts and parmesan cheese, plus a lemon wedge.
Tips & Tidbits for my Pesto Pasta Salad recipe:
- Choose your favorite twisty pasta shape: While you can absolutely use any pasta shape for this recipe, I find the twisty varieties such as cellentani (or cavatappi), rotini, or fusilli best, because the pesto sauce then deliciously coats each piece in all of their twisty nooks and crannies for more flavor.
- Grilled lemon chicken, or other delicious topping options: Grilled lemon chicken is a tasty little addition to this pesto pasta salad, but grilled shrimp or chicken sausage make yummy toppers as well. You could even omit any sort of protein, and simply top with shaved paremesan and pine nuts for a vegetarian option.
- How to keep your pesto green: This is not a mandatory step at all, but blanching basil leaves in simmering water for 20 to 30 seconds, and then shocking them in ice water, helps to lock in their green color for a greener pesto. You can totally skip this step if you prefer, as it does not affect the flavor in any way.
- Make ahead pesto pasta salad: To prepare this pesto pasta salad recipe a day or two ahead, you can cook your pasta and keep it in a container in the fridge, grill off your chicken breasts and slice them, and whirl up your pesto sauce and keep it in a covered container in the fridge. The day you'd like to serve, simply toss the pasta with the pesto, then serve topped with sliced, grilled chicken and the other toppings.
Cook's Note: This recipe was originally published in 2012, and has been updated with even more love!