Spring cleaning is not just for vacuums and dustpans! Once winter's over, I go through my recipe box, clear the cards of casseroles and braises, and start to rethink my weekly meal plan. With my list complete and my focus narrowed on a springtime refresh, I reach for fresh herbs, tender chicken breasts, and the first juicy tomatoes I've seen in months.
Brimming with the fragrance of fresh basil and buttery pine nuts, I build a simple, homemade pesto to mix with hearty chunks of chicken in the slow cooker, ready for a week's worth of salads, wraps, and grain bowls.
Slow Cooker Pesto Chicken: Watch the Video
Pesto is a great technique to master for meal prep, because you can use up the small handful of herbs from last night's dinner, sacrifice a fistful of spinach from your morning smoothie, or toss in the nuts you decided not to add to the brownies. Pesto can be made with any number of tender leafy herbs or greens and toasted nuts, but basil and pine nuts are traditional.
When I pulse this paste together for chicken, I use a heavy hand with the nuts while being more judicious with herbs than you'll find in most pesto recipes or even the little jar from the grocery store. This is because ground pine nuts soften slightly when slow cooked, thickening the rendered chicken broth and giving the chicken a bit of texture.
You can certainly use a store-bought pesto for this, but as your patio plants start bursting with basil, you will be thankful to have a place to use it.
As for the chicken, boneless, skinless breasts are what I reach for. All too often, I prepare this lean protein the same way week in and week out. While a simple salt and pepper seasoning is undeniably versatile, frankly it is uninspired.
For pesto chicken, I add a few spoonfuls of the sauce as the chunks of meat cook, reserving more to stir in at the end to lift and brighten the flavor. Whether I pack this pesto chicken into wraps or serve atop a salad, I'm looking forward to lunch all week long.
Slow Cooker Pesto Chicken
loosely packed fresh basil leaves, divided
toasted pine nuts
kosher salt, divided
boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces
freshly ground black pepper
halved cherry tomatoes (optional)
Pulse the garlic in a food processor fitted with the blade attachment until coarsely chopped, 5 to 6 pulses. Add 1/2 the basil and pulse until the leaves are coarsely chopped, 5 to 6 pulses. Add the remaining basil and pine nuts. Pulse into a coarse paste, 10 to 12 pulses. Add the oil and 1/4 teaspoon of the salt. Pulse until just combined into a coarse paste; set aside.
Season the chicken breasts with the remaining 3/4 teaspoon salt and the pepper. Place the chicken in a 3- to 5-quart slow cooker. Add 3 tablespoons of the pesto and toss to combine. Place the remaining pesto in the refrigerator.
Cover and cook on the LOW setting until the chicken is cooked through, registering 165°F on an instant-read thermometer, 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 hours. If desired, stir the tomatoes in during the final 30 minutes of cooking.
Uncover and stir in the reserved pesto. To serve, toss with cooked pasta, serve on a sandwich bun, tuck in a wrap, or serve on top of cooked rice or cauliflower rice.
Storage: Refrigerate leftovers in an airtight container for up to 4 days.
Make ahead: The pesto can be made up to 1 week in advance. Cover the surface of the pesto with olive oil to prevent discoloration, and refrigerate in an airtight container for up to 1 week or freeze for up to 2 months.