Lemon pesto pasta is bursting with flavor. Perfectly cooked pasta tossed in a light, bright pesto with chicken? Yes, please! It is the perfect weeknight meal.
If you’re looking for a quick and easy dinner bursting with flavor, lemon pesto pasta with grilled chicken is an excellent choice. This simple yet delicious dish calls for an even simpler list of ingredients, but the combination of herby, lemony pesto, and creamy Parmesan cheese packs a big punch.
Why You’ll Love Lemon Pesto Pasta
- Beautiful presentation – Pesto’s green hue against the pale yellow pasta looks bright, springy, and oh-so-fresh. We do eat with our eyes first, after all!
- Bright and zesty flavor – Lemon zest and juice add a fresh burst of tart acidity to juxtapose the herbs’ pungency. It’s a complementary combination that will have your taste buds singing. Although herbal kick is one of the pesto’s selling points, adding acid is essential because it enhances flavor and mitigates any bitterness you may get from fresh herbs.
- Easy to make – This recipe comes together in less than 40 minutes, making it an option for busy weeknights when you want something delicious but don’t have much time to spend in the kitchen.
- Versatile – Any herb will work in the recipe, as will another protein or pasta. If you add nuts, there are several to choose from as well. Feel free to make this recipe your own.
- Great leftovers – This pasta reheats beautifully, so feel free to eat it for lunch or dinner the next day. The pasta isn’t bad when cold, either. You’ll find that the lemon is even more apparent when chilled.
Lemon Pesto Pasta Ingredients Notes
To make lemon pesto pasta, you’ll need:
- Pasta: Any pasta will work. If you like small pasta, try something like rotini, penne, or cavatappi.
- Chicken: Chicken breasts are high in protein, low in fat, and can be pretty juicy as long as you don’t overcook them. As for why I chose to grill the chicken, don’t you love grill marks? They instantly enhance presentation!
- Lemon: Juice and zest means double the lemon flavor. Lemon juice is distinctively tart, while the zest brings that intense lemon flavor.
- Fresh herbs: Parsley and basil made the list. Parsley adds a clean, peppery flavor to the pesto, while the latter is essential. Basil is sweet, savory, a little minty, and peppery. The herb has anise notes as well. For those who are unfamiliar, anise is comparable to licorice.
- Garlic: Four cloves is just enough garlic. Pesto is bright and light, but there are a lot of assertive flavors in the sauce as well. With an aromatic like garlic, you want it to be present, not overdone.
- Parmesan cheese: Freshly grated cheese adds a nutty, salty flavor to the pasta. It’s THE way to finish a lovely pasta dish.
- Extra-virgin olive oil: High-quality olive oil enriches the dish and helps bring the pesto ingredients together.
A complete ingredients list with amounts is in the recipe card below!
How to Make Lemon Pesto Pasta
- Make the pesto: Add the herbs, lemon (juice and zest), garlic, oil, and salt to a food processor or blender. Process/blend until smooth, then set the pesto aside.
- Grill the chicken: Coat the chicken with oil, season (the oil helps the seasonings stick), and cook on a hot grill pan.
- Time for the pasta: Bring a pot of water to a boil and cook the pasta according to the packaging instructions. For the best result, cook until al dente.
- Slice up the chicken: Let rest before cutting it into thin slices.
- Toss and serve: Drain the pasta but reserve some starchy pasta water. Once done, toss the pasta with pesto, and add grilled chicken. Follow with parmesan and a wedge of lemon (if you wish).
Variations, Substitutions, and Cooking Tips
Toast the nuts – Toasted pine nuts, or any other nut, add more depth to the pesto. However, watch them closely. Pine nuts are pricey, so burning them would be a shame.
Use another protein – Grilled shrimp or salmon are great additions to lemon pesto pasta.
Make it vegetarian – Skip the meat and add grilled mushroom caps, cabbage steaks, or zucchini.
Use different pasta – You can use any pasta you like. Rotini, penne, farfalle, or fusilli would all work well.
Make it vegan – Skip the chicken or replace it with one of the vegetarian suggestions above and use nutritional yeast instead of parmesan.
Add parmesan to the pesto – A bit of cheese adds that signature salty, nutty bite.
Storage and Freezer Tips
Store the lemon pesto pasta in an airtight container and refrigerate. Eat within 3-4 days. If preparing the dish in advance, you can store the chicken separately to reheat it separately. While pesto pasta microwaves nicely, chicken does not taste that great, so you may want to reheat it in the oven.
- 1 box pasta
- 2 chicken breasts
- Freshly ground pepper
- Freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- The juice of 1 lemon
- 1 bunch of parsley
- 1 cup packed basil
- (I also used about 3 tbs. pine nuts but, this is totally optional)
- 4 garlic cloves
- ¼ cup olive oil
- 1.5 tsp. salt
- Grab your food processor and add all of the pesto ingredients (parsley, basil, lemon, garlic, olive oil, salt) and blend them up until they are smooth. Transfer to a bowl and place in the fridge.
- Next, take your chicken breasts and coat them with a good coating of freshly ground pepper then drizzle with olive oil. Add the breasts to a hot grill pan and sear on each side for about 5-6 minutes on high (be sure not to move them as that will ruin your chances of getting really good grill marks).
- Once the breasts have seared, reduce the heat to medium-low, cover with tin-foil and let cook for an additional 15 minutes.
- Meanwhile, place a large pot of water on the stove, bring to a boil, then season with salt. Add the pasta and cook according to package instructions (I left mine a bit al dente).
- Once the chicken has finished cooking, let the breasts rest for about 5-10 minutes then thinly slice going against the grain.
- To your serving bowl, add the pasta and the pesto and gently toss together.
- Serve with the grilled chicken, a lemon wedge, and freshly sliced parmesan.
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