Pesto has gone from a simple, uncooked pasta sauce in the Italian province of Liguria to a worldwide phenomenon. It is so easy to make — just whiz it in a food processor. Here, it's a topping for chicken breasts. I love the way pesto gets a bit toasty in the oven and how good it tastes mixed with the juices from chicken in spaghetti.
For the pesto:
The classic way to make pesto is with a mortar and pestle, which I like to call a "bump and grind." I still like to make it that way the texture just feels more rustic and homemade.
If you're making the pesto with a mortar and pestle, mash the garlic, salt, and red pepper flakes into a coarse paste.
Add 1 cup of the basil and pound until it is coarsely ground. Add the remaining 1/2 cup basil and pound until a coarse puree forms. Add the pine nuts and pound just to break them up. Add the Parmesan cheese and olive oil and mash until the nuts are coarsely ground and the mixture is well blended.
If you're making the pesto in a food processor, pulse the pine nuts, garlic, salt, and red pepper flakes together until the nuts and garlic are finely chopped. Add the basil and Parmesan cheese and pulse about 10 times to chop the basil. With the machine running, gradually pour in the olive oil.
Transfer the pesto to a container and float a thin layer of olive oil on top. Cover and keep refrigerated, but bring to room temperature before using.
The pesto can be made up to 2 weeks ahead, covered and refrigerated.
For the chicken:
Preheat oven to 400°F. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat.
Season chicken breast halves with salt and pepper. Heat a large ovenproof skillet over high heat. Add olive oil, then add chicken and cook for 3 minutes per side, or until golden brown. Remove pan from heat.
Spread pesto generously over chicken. Transfer pan to oven and bake chicken for 6 minutes, or until it shows no sign of pink when pierced. Transfer chicken to a cutting board and let stand for 3 minutes.
For the spaghetti:
Add spaghetti to boiling water and cook, stirring often to keep strands from sticking together, about 8 minutes, or until it is tender but still firm to bite. Scoop out and reserve 2/3 cup of cooking water. Drain spaghetti.
Pour reserved cooking water back into pot and whisk in olive oil. Add spaghetti and parsley and stir well to coat spaghetti.
Arrange each chicken breast half on one side of a dinner plate and place spaghetti alongside. Sprinkle with pine nuts and torn basil and drizzle with olive oil. Sprinkle Parmesan cheese over pasta and serve.