Shake up your regular pesto routine and use this creamy, nutty sauce as a marinade for grilled chicken or a dressing for cold noodles on a hot night.

Pestos, pastes, and purées are ancient recipes made around the world with greens and herbs, garlic and spices, seeds and nuts, oils, and other ingredients depending on a country’s agriculture and cuisine.

peanut-sesame pesto

Peanut-Sesame Pesto is delicious as a dressing for cold noodles or as a sauce for chicken, pork, or tofu. Photo by © Lara Ferroni, excerpted from The Pesto Cookbook.

One of the most familiar pestos originated in Genoa, Italy, in the province of Liguria. Made from basil, pine nuts, garlic, olive oil, Parmigiano-Reggiano and/ or Pecorino Romano cheeses, pesto Genovese is a traditional Italian sauce for dressing pasta. It is also delicious with fish, meats, vegetables, soups, and breads.

Other countries have their own version of pesto. In nearby Provence, the French version is pistou, a combination of basil, parsley, crushed garlic, and grated cheese. Spain has romesco — a red paste of romesco chile peppers processed with tomatoes, sweet red peppers, pine nuts, garlic, and olive oil. In Germany they make a pesto from the flat elliptical leaves of ramsons, a wild garlic that grows rampantly in moist pastures in many European countries and in southern regions of the United States. In Peru there is a dish called tallarines verdes or “green noodles,” named after Italian tagliarini pasta with green pesto. In Singapore, an Italian-Peranakan version called laksa pesto includes curry. In most Thai and Mexican restaurants, you will find some kind of thick sauce containing peanuts or almonds, sesame or pumpkin seeds, peppers, garlic, and oil, though no cheese or basil.

I grow many herbs and vegetables and cook dinner almost every night, so I often make pestos with whatever is at hand. The constant ingredients are herbs, oil, and garlic, but many variables are at play: I make pestos with or without nuts and with a variety of types of cheese — or sometimes no cheese at all.

You can make pestos, pastes, and purées from just about anything. I try to keep a few jars of various pestos and purées in my refrigerator at all times. These little jars of greens, garlic, and oil are often my lifesavers at the end of a busy day.

Many factors influence what you might add to your own personal pesto. These include where you live and the season; which fresh herbs and greens you are able to grow, harvest, or purchase year-round; and whether you can find local ricotta, goat cheese, or fresh mozzarella, or whether you make your own.

boneless chicken thighs with peanut-sesame pesto

Boneless chicken thighs with peanut-sesame pesto. Photo by © Lara Ferroni, excerpted from The Pesto Cookbook.

Peanut-Sesame Pesto features one of my favorite flavor combinations; I use it on chicken (I’ve included the recipe for Boneless Chicken Thighs with Peanut-Sesame Pesto below), flank steak, pork, tofu, and, of course, noodles. My favorite sesame noodles are served cold and topped with sliced scallions and cucumber. Cook 8 ounces of Asian noodles or thin linguine and rinse in cold water before tossing with 1 cup of pesto — rinsing the noodles prevents them from becoming gummy. These keep well, so I often make extra for leftovers.

Peanut-Sesame Pesto

Yield: About 2½ cups


  • 1 cup basil leaves
  • ½ cup cilantro leaves and tender stems
  • ¼ cup snipped chives or thinly sliced scallions (green part only)
  • 4–6 large cloves garlic
  • ¼ cup roasted unsalted peanuts
  • 2-inch piece gingerroot, peeled and sliced
  • ½ cup peanut butter, chunky or smooth
  • ½ cup warm water
  • ½ cup low-sodium soy sauce
  • ¼ cup rice vinegar
  • ¼ cup sesame oil
  • ¼ cup tahini paste
  • 1 tablespoon honey or sweet chili sauce


  1. Place all the ingredients in a food processor and process until smooth or to desired consistency, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary. Add more sesame oil, honey, or soy sauce to taste.

Boneless Chicken Thighs with Peanut-Sesame Pesto

You can substitute boneless chicken breasts as desired. However, breasts will be double the thickness of the flat boneless thighs, so you will need to place them between parchment or waxed paper and pound them to about 1 inch in thickness using a rolling pin or meat pounder. Serve with orzo, farro, quinoa, rice, or noodles tossed with snipped basil or other herbs of choice. Stir in about ¼ cup of the Peanut-Sesame Pesto to flavor the grains. Steamed green beans are one of my go-to vegetables with this dish.



  • 4–6 boneless chicken thighs, or 4 (6-ounce) boneless chicken breasts
  • 1½ cups Peanut-Sesame Pesto
  • Snipped chives, basil, or cilantro, for garnish (optional)


  1. Place the chicken on a large baking tray. Spoon ½ cup of the pesto over the top and turn to coat both sides. Leave at room temperature for 30 minutes, or refrigerate and marinate for 1 to 8 hours, then bring to room temperature for 30 minutes.
  2. Preheat an outdoor grill to high or a stovetop grill pan over medium heat. Remove from the baking tray, discarding any liquid, and place the chicken on the grill. Grill for 10 minutes per side, until an instant-read thermometer registers 165 to 170°F (74–77°C). (Alternately, place on a baking tray and broil 5 to 6 inches from the heating element for 8 minutes on each side.)
  3. Place the chicken on a cutting board and allow to rest for about 5 minutes. Slice into 1-inch thick pieces and place on a serving plate. Drizzle with ½ cup of the pesto and serve the rest at the table. If desired, sprinkle chives, basil, or cilantro over the chicken.

Text and recipes excerpted from The Pesto Cookbook © 2018 by Olwen Woodier. All rights reserved.

Olwen Woodier

Olwen Woodier is the author of six cookbooks, including The Pesto Cookbook and The Apple Cookbook. She has written about food for 35 years, including articles for… See Bio

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The Pesto Cookbook

by Olwen Woodier

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