This week's column features another easy weeknight dinner recipe with a savory, filling and delicious Creamy Pesto Chicken Pasta dish that requires minimal effort to achieve maximum results.

Chicken breast, asparagus and penne noodles are tossed with a deliciously simple, creamy pesto sauce for a crowd-pleasing dinner that comes together in under 30 minutes.

This recipe has it all in one dish: protein, vegetable, starch and dairy, and everything but the pasta is made using one large skillet, which makes for a quick and easy cleanup.

Making basil pesto from scratch is a simple task, but it does require a generous amount of fresh basil which can be hard to come by now that our overnight temperatures have dropped so quickly. Plus, this recipe is meant to be an easy weeknight fix, so feel free to use a store-bought pesto.

When buying basil pesto, we stay away from jarred versions, which often have a bitter taste, and opt instead for the fresh basil pesto found in the gourmet refrigerated section of big-box stores like Sam’s and Costco. Both brands of pesto have good flavor and freshness and will last for several weeks in the refrigerator or for two to three months in the freezer.

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I prefer penne noodles for this dish, but you can use any shape you like, including long noodles like fettuccine or linguine. This recipe uses 12 ounces of pasta, or ¾ of a 1-pound box, which will yield about six generous portions. Be sure to season the pasta water well with kosher or sea salt before adding the penne.

The chicken breasts are cut lengthwise into cutlets so that they will cook quickly. Sarah Nasello / The Forum
The chicken breasts are cut lengthwise into cutlets so that they will cook quickly. Sarah Nasello / The Forum

As the pasta boils, the chicken cutlets are sauteed in a large skillet until golden brown and fully cooked, which only takes between six to eight minutes. The cutlets are then removed from the pan and set aside to rest before carving into penne-sized pieces.

The chicken cutlets are cooked over medium heat until golden brown and fully cooked, which only takes about four minutes per side. Sarah Nasello / The Forum
The chicken cutlets are cooked over medium heat until golden brown and fully cooked, which only takes about four minutes per side. Sarah Nasello / The Forum

I use this size for a guide when cutting the asparagus, too, which is added to the pan next and cooked in olive oil with the browned bits from the chicken until crisp-tender, about two to three minutes.

The asparagus is cut into bite-size pieces and sauteed in the same pan until crisp-tender. Sarah Nasello / The Forum
The asparagus is cut into bite-size pieces and sauteed in the same pan until crisp-tender. Sarah Nasello / The Forum

Then comes the heavy cream, which simmers for three to four minutes until the sauce appears quite bubbly and thick enough to coat the back of a spoon.

Heavy cream is added to the pan with the asparagus and brought to a frothy, bubbling simmer. The sauce is ready when it is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Sarah Nasello / The Forum
Heavy cream is added to the pan with the asparagus and brought to a frothy, bubbling simmer. The sauce is ready when it is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Sarah Nasello / The Forum

Next, the basil pesto is stirred in until combined, followed by the sliced chicken pieces. To finish the sauce, I always add a hefty dose of grated Parmesan cheese, and last week I threw in some cherry tomatoes from our garden at the same time. Once the cheese is incorporated, the cooked penne is added and tossed until each noodle is well coated.

The pesto is stirred in and the cooked chicken breast is returned to the pan and tossed in the sauce. Sarah Nasello / The Forum
The pesto is stirred in and the cooked chicken breast is returned to the pan and tossed in the sauce. Sarah Nasello / The Forum

This Creamy Pesto Chicken Pasta features juicy hunks of chicken swimming in a garlicky pesto cream sauce with penne noodles and just enough asparagus to mitigate any guilt from those creamy calories, and it's ready in under 30 minutes. Now, that is a chicken dinner winner.

This easy weeknight main course features penne noodles tossed in a creamy pesto sauce with chicken breast and asparagus. Cherry tomatoes can be added as an optional flourish just before serving. Sarah Nasello / The Forum
This easy weeknight main course features penne noodles tossed in a creamy pesto sauce with chicken breast and asparagus. Cherry tomatoes can be added as an optional flourish just before serving. Sarah Nasello / The Forum

Creamy Pesto Chicken Pasta

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Serves: 4 to 6

Ingredients:

12 ounces penne pasta (3/4 of a 1-pound package)

1 1/2 pounds chicken breast

1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt, divided

¾ teaspoon black pepper, divided

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided

1 pound asparagus, ends removed and cut into pieces (1 to 2 inches long)

2 cups heavy cream

¼ cup basil pesto

¼ cup Parmesan, grated

2 cups cherry tomatoes, halved (optional)

Directions:

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat; add penne pasta and cook according to directions on package until al dente, then drain into a colander.

As the pasta cooks, slice the chicken breasts in half lengthwise, then season each side with ½ teaspoon kosher salt and ¼ teaspoon black pepper. In a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat until hot. Add the chicken and reduce heat to medium.

Cook on each side until golden brown and fully cooked through, about 3 to 4 minutes per side. To test, chicken should be opaque with clear juices or reach 165 degrees on a meat thermometer.

Remove cutlets from the pan and let rest on a cutting board for 5 minutes, then slice into bite sized strips similar in size to the penne noodles.

To the same pan, add the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil and the asparagus pieces. Cook the asparagus over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until crisp tender, about 2 to 3 minutes.

Add the heavy cream and bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Then reduce heat to medium-low and let simmer for 3 to 5 minutes until the cream appears thick, frothy and bubbly.

Add the pesto and stir to combine, then add the cooked chicken and continue cooking over low heat for 2 minutes, stirring occasionally to combine. Taste and add more seasoning if desired, starting with ½ teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon black pepper.

Add the grated Parmesan cheese and tomatoes, if using, and cook for 1 more minute, stirring to combine.

Add the cooked pasta and toss until evenly coated with the sauce. Remove pan from heat and transfer pasta to serving bowl. Serve immediately.

Recipe Time Capsule:

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Recipes can be found with the article at InForum.com.

“Home with the Lost Italian” is a weekly column written by Sarah Nasello featuring recipes by her husband, Tony Nasello. The couple owned Sarello’s in Moorhead and lives in Fargo with their son, Giovanni. Readers can reach them at sarahnasello@gmail.com.