Arugula-Walnut Pesto Chicken Salad

Dsc02776 A few weeks ago, Eric announced that he was going to have another go at the Las Vegas Marathon this December.  Fortunately, he seems to have learned a lesson from his previous attempt, which ended disastrously.  Oh, he finished, but I practically had to carry him to the car, he couldn't climb the stairs for two days, and he spent most of that time looking pale and miserable on the couch.  Way to celebrate the big victory!  How can you not  want to run 26.2 miles when I paint a picture like that?

Actually,  all of this pain and suffering could have easily been avoided with a little thing called "training."  Eric comes from a family of naturally talented runners.  His dad just finished the Boston Marathon, his mom runs several smaller races each year, his sister has climbed just about every peak in Colorado, and she likely did it at 7mph or faster, and his cousin is even paid to run.  These people run everywhere and, quite frankly, I'm surprised that I was allowed into the family, what with my walking and hiking tendencies (although, to be fair, I do speed walk at the highest possible incline...)  Since running is obviously in the genes, Eric didn't really feel the need to practice as much as he probably should have, which obviously backfired in a way that he will never forget.

So, this time around, my older and wiser husband has mapped out an Olympic-worthy training regimen using the only method that he knows--a beautiful, intricate spreadsheet.  Let me put it this way:  Julie is to cooking as Eric is to building spreadsheets.  We have a spreadsheet for everything in our house.  I've never seen someone have so much fun with Excel, the program that nearly pushed me over the edge during graduate school.  These graphs are works of art, and I'd frame them if it didn't mean splashing our family finances all over our walls for visitors to see.  So, anyhow, this spreadsheet lists his daily running goals up until the day of the race, and he has put in a request for me to up the protein and carb quotient of his meals, with lots of pasta.  All of a sudden, I'm living with Carl Lewis......

One of Eric's favorite ways to eat pasta is with pesto.  When most people think of pesto, they think of basil, pine nuts, and Parmesan, but I find pesto to be one of the more versatile condiments, so I like to play around with different types of greens, herbs, nuts, and even cheeses whenever I prepare a batch.  This variation combines peppery arugula, something I always have on hand for salads and sandwiches, toasted walnuts, and Parmesan cheese.  I always save some pesto to toss with pasta or scrambled eggs or spread on sandwiches, but I also like to make this addictive pesto chicken salad.  Eat this on its own, toss it with pasta, or serve it between slices of toasted multi-grain bread with juicy heirloom tomatoes.  At the very least, I predict an eating marathon in Eric's future!  Here are a few more tips for making this peppery pesto, vinaigrette, and salad:

  • Wild arugula, sometimes referred to as "rocket," can be found in the section of your grocery store that carries mixed greens and bagged salads.  Arugula has a peppery taste with a little more bite, but it is less expensive than traditionally used basil.  If you don't care for arugula, you can substitute fresh baby spinach, basil, flat-leaf parsley, watercress, or a combination of these.
  • Pine nuts, pumpkin seeds (pepitas), hazelnuts, pecans, or even cashews can serve as substitutes for the walnuts.  Keep an eye on the pine nuts as they toast--they burn very easily!
  • Occasionally, I'll substitute grapeseed oil for olive oil in the pesto and vinaigrette.  Mildly flavored grapeseed oil is gaining popularity in the kitchen, and it offers many of the same health benefits as olive oil.
  • Pesto is a great vehicle for using up mixed greens and herbs that are on the verge of going bad.  Pesto can be portioned out and frozen in plastic bags or in ice cube trays and then used on an as-needed basis.
  • For the roasted and shredded chicken, I wait for boneless skinless chicken breasts to go on sale and then I buy several packages, separate pieces into zip-top bags, and freeze them.  When I want to prepare this salad, I thaw 4 or 5 breasts, season with salt and pepper, and then roast them at 400F degrees for 20-25 minutes, or until cooked through.  Rotisserie chicken can also be used, but that is usually a pricier option.

Arugula-Walnut Pesto Chicken Salad

For the pestoDsc02783

2 ½ cups arugula leaves, packed

6-8 peeled garlic cloves

¼ cup olive oil

Juice from ½ lemon

¼ cup lightly toasted walnuts

⅔ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Salt and pepper to taste

For the pesto vinaigrette

1 cup prepared Arugula-Walnut Pesto

3 tablespoons red wine vinegar

Juice from 1 lemon

¼ cup olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

For the salad

6 cups shredded, cooked chicken

1 cup pesto vinaigrette

¼ cup coarsely chopped toasted walnuts

⅔ cup grated Parmesan cheese

2 cups arugula, packed

Salt and pepper to taste

Prepare the pesto:  Place the arugula and garlic in the bowl of a food processor and pulse to roughly chop, scraping down the sides of the bowl several times.  With the motor running, add the olive oil in a slow stream through the feed tube, stopping several times to scrape down the sides of the bowl.  Add the lemon juice and continue to run the food processor until the leaves are pureed.  Add the walnuts, cheese, salt, and pepper, and puree about 1 minute more, until the pesto is well blended and smooth.  Add more olive oil if the pesto is too thick.

Prepare the pesto vinaigrette:  In a medium bowl, whisk together the pesto, vinegar, and lemon juice.  Add the olive oil slowly, whisking until incorporated.  Season with salt and pepper.

Prepare the salad:  Place the chicken in a large bowl and add the vinaigrette, walnuts, and parmesan; toss to mix.  Add the arugula, season with salt and pepper, and toss gently to mix.  Garnish with additional chopped walnuts and cheese, if desired. 

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  1. This sounds great! You should think about entering it in The National Chicken Cook Off.


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