Chicken and Broccoli Pasta with Pesto Sauce

This chicken and broccoli pasta dish is a family favorite go-to recipe. It’s the ultimate pantry meal that you can assemble with leftovers but it’s also an easy meal to cook from scratch.

You can easily substitute most of the ingredients in this recipe without changing the basic ideas of this dish, which are pasta, vegetables, protein and an oil-based sauce. This can transform into a balanced vegan meal by swapping the chicken for chickpeas, using vegan pesto, and skipping the parmesan.

I’ve made this recipe from scratch but it tastes just as good with leftover chicken, frozen or leftover broccoli and jarred pesto.

What you’ll need

  • Pesto – Use pesto in a jar or fresh pesto. Pesto is made with fresh basil, garlic, olive oil, pine nuts, parmesan cheese and lemon.
  • Whole wheat pasta – I like the nutty flavor of whole wheat pasta with an oil-based sauce like pesto. The heartiness of the whole grains adds another layer of texture.
  • Fresh or frozen broccoli – This is a great one-pot meal that works well using a frozen vegetable. Use broccoli florets, instead of chopped broccoli which breaks up too much. If you’re using fresh broccoli, boil or steam the broccoli until it’s cooked to your preferred consistency. I usually throw the broccoli into the boiling pasta for the last 2 minutes, then strain the pasta and broccoli together.
  • Parmesan cheese – A good quality grated pecorino romano cheese adds a lot of flavor and a little goes a long way.
  • Shredded or cubed leftover roasted chicken – This recipe uses rotisserie or leftover grilled or roasted chicken. Shred or cut the chicken into bite-sized cubes.

How to make

1. Boil the pasta according to the package instructions.

Boiling pasta swirled over a fork.

2. Prepare the broccoli or use leftovers. For fresh broccoli, add the broccoli florets to the billing pasta water for the last 2-3 minutes and strain the pasta and broccoli together. For frozen broccoli, cook it in the microwave or add to the boiling water for the last minute.

3. Shred leftover chicken.

4. Toss the cooked chicken, broccoli, pasta, jarred pesto and parmesan cheese in a bowl.

Ingredients for chicken and broccoli in large pot.

Substitutions

The versatility of this recipe makes this the perfect pantry meal. These are a few variations to give you an idea of how to personalize this dish or use whatever is in the house.

Variations of pesto

Jarred pesto is fine and I always like to keep pesto in the pantry specifically for this recipe but nothing beats fresh pesto and it’s easy to make.

There are only a few ingredients in classic pesto and every one of them is important. But you can substitute most of the ingredients and yield a similar sauce. The key to a quality pesto is using fresh ingredients. So, substituting with dry herbs won’t produce a similar quality sauce.

If you eat vegan, have food allergies or need to swap an ingredient in a pinch, here are a few suggestions.

Basil – parsley, baby spinach, arugula or cilantro. Cilantro significantly changes the flavor and cilantro pesto may not work well with certain meals. If you use cilantro, swap the lemon with lime.

Pine nuts – Walnuts or leave out. Sunflower seeds could work but make sure you don’t overprocess the seeds into paste.

Parmesan cheese – Nutritional yeast or leave out.

Garlic – There’s no good replacement unless you happen to have garlic scapes. If you don’t have garlic, skip it (don’t forget to add it to your shopping list). Try adding garlic powder for flavor to compensate for the real thing in a pinch.

Extra virgin olive oil – Extra virgin olive oil has a strong pungent flavor that makes a good pesto. Substitute with walnut oil or flavorless oils such as olive, avocado or canola oil. The flavor of coconut oil and peanut oil is too strong and they aren’t good substitutes here.

Lemon – Bottled lemon juice or leave it out. In this case, lime isn’t a good substitute for lemon. Lime compliments cilantro, but not basil.

Protein

Other meats – turkey, cubed beef, pork or shrimp. Or skip the meat and replace it with a plant-based protein. I often make this recipe with chickpeas.

Plant-based protein – Chickpeas, tofu or tempeh.

Pasta

Anything goes here so use whatever pasta you like including zoodles or bean protein pasta. As for the pasta shape, I suggest spaghetti, penne or farfalle with this chicken and broccoli pasta dish.

Vegetables

Substitute any non-starchy vegetable for the broccoli. Just throw in leftover roasted vegetables or cooked frozen vegetables for a quick meal.

This recipe also tastes great with roasted peppers (not jarred), eggplant, zucchini, yellow squash or cauliflower.

Make ahead and reheat tips

Store leftovers in the refrigerator for 3-5 days. Chicken and pasta may look dry right out of the refrigerator. You add reserved pesto to the pasta before heating it in the microwave, although reheating usually brings the oil back.

This is a go-to lunch in our house when we need something easy to pack. I recommend prepping ahead by portioning servings into individual containers to carry to work.

Chicken and Broccoli Pasta with Pesto Sauce

Prep Time10 minutes
Cook Time10 minutes
Course: Main Course
Cuisine: American
Servings: 6
Author: Jennifer Messineo, MS, RD

Ingredients

  • 3 cups cubed or shredded chicken cooked
  • 3 cups broccoli florets
  • 6 ounces pesto sauce
  • 1 pound whole wheat pasta
  • 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese plus extra for garnishing
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon pepper

Instructions

  • Boil the pasta according to the package directions ~5-10 minutes (depending on the size of pasta) and strain.

Broccoli

  • Frozen broccoli: steam or microwave ~5 minutes.
  • Leftover broccoli: reheat until warm.
  • Fresh Broccoli: steam for ~8-10 minutes until the broccoli florets are crisp but tender. Or, drop into the boiling pasta water for the last 2 minutes and strain pasta and broccoli. Remove before the broccoli gets too soft or it will mash apart when you mix the ingredients.

Combine

  • In a large bowl, mix all the ingredients: pasta, broccoli, pesto, parmesan cheese, salt and pepper.
  • Top with extra grated or shaved parmesan cheese.

Notes

  • Use leftover cooked chicken, turkey beef, pork or shrimp.
  • Substitute meat with chickpeas or tofu.
  • Use frozen or fresh broccoli florets or any roasted vegetable. 
  • If you don’t have pesto, substitute it with any oil-based sauce.  Try olive oil, fresh lemon juice and fresh chopped rosemary. 

About Jennifer Messineo, MS, RD

I’m a food loving Registered Dietitian. I help families plan meals, reduce food waste and save money on food!

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