Every week when I buy groceries, one item that always ends up in my cart is boneless skinless chicken breasts. While they're the perfect starting point and you can pretty much cook them a million ways, finding new and delicious ways to present the same ol', same ol', can be quite challenging!
This past Monday, I took a package of frozen boneless skinless chicken breasts out of the freezer in the morning, thinking I'd make some sort of chicken dish for dinner that evening. When my daughter came downstairs after her third junior high outfit change for breakfast she said, 'Oh...we're having chicken for dinner?". Well, yes, my little princess slash genius, yes we are! This was immediately followed up with a question about what 'kind' of chicken we were going to have. (Despite having known me for the past 13 years, apparently she's yet to master the art of asking me a question without leaving it wide open for a sarcastic response!) "Oh, you know, the kind of chicken that clucks and has feathers'". She was un-amused.
Truth was, at that particular point, I really didn't know how I was going to prepare the chicken breasts for dinner that night. Boneless skinless chicken breasts show up on our dinner table at least once a week. That's 52 times a year. Sure, there are a few recipes that I'll repeat a couple of times a year, but, for the most part, I like to prepare it differently week to week. Back when I was a kid, we knew what day of the week it was by what we had for dinner: Sunday dinner was always a roasted chicken, turkey or beef or Jigg's Dinner, a traditional Newfoundland dish comprised of salted beef, potatoes, carrot, turnip and cabbage all boiled up in one pot. Monday there was a hash made from any leftovers from Sunday, Tuesday was macaroni and tomato, Wednesday was fish sticks and fries, Thursday was meatloaf and Friday was fish and potatoes. On Saturday we usually had hot dogs or canned beans and toast. Every now and then though, mom threw us a curve ball with Beef Stroganoff, Catelli Meat Sauce and spaghetti, liver and onions or blood pudding with mashed potatoes, (the last two curve balls in particular make me shudder even now).
There are literally millions of ways to prepare boneless skinless chicken breasts. Granted, that number decreases when you add the variables of allowable cook time and available ingredients. Poking around in my refrigerator I found pesto, tomatoes and mozzarella cheese. I simply adore the taste of pesto. There's something just so seductively aromatic and delightful about fresh basil, pine nuts, olive oil, garlic and parmesan cheese, all blended to a wonderful puree! While pesto originates in Genoa, Italy, it's predecessors date back to ancient Rome. It has to be good to be still around all this time! Sometimes I make my own fresh pesto, (click HERE for recipe) but on this particular occasion, I used a jar of pesto I had in my refrigerator. (You can usually find pesto either in the deli section or where you'd find pasta sauces in your grocery store). Adding pesto to a tried and true recipe can take it in a whole new wonderful direction. I've added pesto to meatballs, sandwiches, salads, pizza, seafood, vegetable side dishes, soups and even quesadillas!
I decided chicken breasts and pesto would be my starting point. I still didn't have a clear plan at 9 am, but I did know I wanted to somehow incorporate the tomatoes and mozzarella cheese into the pesto chicken dish. When it was time to get cooking, I decided I'd slather, (that's a highly technical term for 'completely coat'), the chicken breasts, both sides, in pesto sauce. Knowing that the pesto would probably get a little messy in the oven, I placed the pesto coated chicken breasts on parchment paper on a baking sheet.
I figured the pesto coated chicken breasts would probably take about 50-55 minutes to cook through at 350 degrees Fahrenheit. It was then that I was struck with an epiphany: half-way through the baking process, I'd top each of the chicken breasts with some grated mozzarella cheese and diced tomatoes! So after baking for 30 minutes, I had my cheese and tomato all ready to go so I hauled the chicken breasts out of the oven, topped each breast with about 1 Tbsp. grated mozzarella, and as much chopped tomato as I could pile on there and seasoned the topping with some freshly chopped basil and Italian parsley. Admittedly, the chicken breasts looked a little 'top heavy'. What else could I do but top it with more cheese of course! (My thoughts were that the cheese would melt down over the tomatoes and herbs and keep them in place on top of the chicken breasts).
This is what the chicken breasts looked like after 30 minutes of baking with just the pesto on them:
This is what the chicken breasts looked like after they were topped with grated mozzarella, chopped tomato and finely chopped fresh basil and Italian Parsley, before they went back into the 350 degree Fahrenheit oven for another 25 minutes:
25 minutes later, with my kitchen smelling so richly aromatic, here's the Baked Pesto Chicken:
Just before preparing the Baked Pesto Chicken, I realized I'd need a side dish to go with this yumminess. I wanted something flavourful but not overpoweringly flavourful that it would compete with the Baked Pesto Chicken. We had pasta two nights prior, so that was out. Rice? Nah, I wasn't feeling it. Potatoes? They could work. Only problem was, I have never been a fan of mashed potatoes, and I didn't want TWO baked items. A potato hash of some sort would be nice. I took five medium potatoes out of the pantry, and a green bell pepper and white onion out of the refrigerator. Potato and Green Pepper Hash! That's what I'd make, (and call it!).
I peeled and diced the potatoes into 1/2 inch cubes. Oops....perhaps I should have microwaved or blanched the potatoes first. I wondered if the potatoes would soften up and cook on the stove top with a little olive oil in a skillet with the cover on? Nothing ventured, nothing gained. I heated up 2 Tbsp olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. I tossed the cubed potatoes in, gave them a toss to coat in the oil, covered the skillet and let the potatoes cook for about 10 minutes. (I started cooking the potatoes just after I placed the mozza and tomato topped chicken breasts back into the oven, just in case you're wondering about my timing).
After 10 minutes, I removed the cover from the skillet and to my delight, the potatoes were fork-tender! I had diced up the green bell pepper and onion, tossed them into the skillet with the potatoes and stirred it all about. At this point I decided to add a clove of minced garlic. I increased the heat under the skillet to medium high to give the potatoes are more golden colour and let everything cook for another 10-15 minutes.
At the 15 minute mark, the Baked Pesto Chicken was ready so I removed the baking sheet from the oven. I gave the Potato and Green Pepper Hash another stir, seasoned it to taste with freshly ground sea salt and black pepper and about a 1/2 Tbsp finely chopped fresh basil and fresh Italian parsley.
At the very last minute before plating, I decided to toss a salad together with spinach, red onion and the cubed tomato that I had left over. I made a little White Wine and Mustard Vinagrette by whisking together 2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil, 1 Tbsp white wine vinegar, 1 tsp grainy mustard, 2 tsp maple syrup and a little salt and pepper. When plating, I garnished the Potato and Green Pepper Hash with some freshly grated parmesan cheese.
The Baked Pesto Chicken breasts were tender and juicy and packed with the wonderful flavour and the hash was simply heavenyly! The spinach salad brought a really nice balance to the plate.
The total prep time for this dish was about 10 minutes for the chicken and 5 minutes for the potatoes, which were prepped while the chicken was in the oven and the total cooking time was 55 minutes.
This dish was hearty, aromatic and completely satisfying. It was a wonderful weeknight meal but I would hasten to prepare it for dinner guests sometime!
Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or aluminum foil.
Season chicken breasts on both sides lightly with freshly ground sea salt and black pepper. (NOTE: Seasoning with salt is completely optional here...the pesto brings A LOT of flavour!). Generously spread about 1 Tbsp of pesto onto each side of the chicken breasts.
Place chicken breasts on lined baking sheet adn baked in preheated oven for 30 minutes. While chicken is baking, grate mozzarella cheese and chop tomato, basil and Italian parsley. At the 30 minute mark, moving quickly, remove baking sheet from oven and top each breast with 1/2 grated mozzarella cheese, then chopped tomato, basil and Italian parsley. Top with remaining grated mozzarella cheese and return to oven for another 25 minutes, or until chicken breasts are cooked through and no longer pink on the inside.
4 large or 5 medium potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2" cubes
1 medium onion, diced
1 green bell pepper, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 Tbsp Fresh Italian Parsley, finely chopped
1/2 Tbsp fresh basil, finely chopped
Freshly ground sea salt and black pepper to taste
1/4 c. freshly grated parmesan cheese to garnish
Heat oil and unsalted butter in large skillet over medium heat. Add potato cubes and toss to coat. Cover skillet and let potatoes cook until fork-tender, about 10 minutes.
Remove lid from skillet and increase heat to medium high. Add onion, bell pepper and minced garlic. Stir to combine. Cook for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until potatoes are golden and onion is tender. Add Italian parsley and basil and cook for another 1-2 minutes. Season with freshly ground sea salt and black pepper. Serve topped with freshly grated parmesan cheese.