MMM: Chicken Pesto Meatballs In Marina


Spinning today: tender chicken meatballs, fragrant with pesto, gently cooked in a dead-simple tomato sauce. It’s garlicky, basil-y goodness guaranteed to “bring the house down.”

This recipe is part of March Meatball Madness; get all the recipes right here.


Chicken Pesto Meatballs in Marinara Sauce

 Serves 2-4 | Prep 10 min | Cook 25 min | Whole30 compliant

1/2 cup (packed) fresh basil leaves
1/4 cup fresh parsley leaves
1/4 cup walnuts
1 clove garlic, smashed and peeled
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
dash crushed red pepper flakes
1 pound ground chicken*
2 tablespoons warm water
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/4 teaspoon baking soda

*If you can’t find ground chicken in your store, you can make it yourself. Mince 1 pound boneless, skinless breasts in a food processor until smooth.

1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
1-2 cloves garlic, minced
1 (14.5 ounce) can crushed tomatoes
1  (8 ounce) can tomato sauce
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
10 large fresh basil leaves, slivered

NOTE: Why cream of tartar and baking soda? Traditional ground meat recipes are usually tenderized with breadcrumbs. I use a cream of tartar/baking soda combo to keep the meat light and juicy, with a nice, crisp exterior.

1. Place the basil, parsley, walnuts, garlic, olive oil, salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes in the bowl of a food processor and purée until it forms a uniform paste. You may need to scrape down the sides a few times to get it to the right texture.

2. Place the ground chicken in a large bowl, then add the pesto. In a small bowl or measuring cup, mix the water with the cream of tartar and baking soda  — it will fizz a little. Add to the bowl with the chicken and mix until all ingredients are evenly distributed. Cover and refrigerate at least 20 minutes and up to overnight.

3. While the meat is chilling, start the sauce. Heat a large non-stick skillet over low heat and add the olive oil. When the oil is warm, about 2 minutes, add the crushed garlic and when it’s fragrant, about 30 seconds, add the tomatoes. Stir to combine and bring to a very low simmer.

4, Remove the chicken dough from the fridge. Moisten your hands with cold water and shake to remove excess. Measure a rounded tablespoon of chicken and roll into a ball between your palms. Place gently in the tomato sauce. Repeat until all the balls are nestled into the sauce. It’s OK if they touch each other and aren’t completely submerged.

6. Cook the meatballs in the tomato sauce, covered, about 25 minutes. Remove the lid from the pan and allow to cook another 5-10 minutes to allow the sauce to thicken a little. Add the fresh basil leaves, stir, and serve on spaghetti squash or zucchini noodles. Bonus if you drizzle with a little extra-virgin olive oil.

NOTE: These taste even better after sitting in the fridge for a day. To reheat, just plunk everything in a saucepan, cover with a lid, and warm up over medium heat.


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17 Responses to “MMM: Chicken Pesto Meatballs In Marina”

  1. Becky Castilleja says:

    I made this tonight for my family. We really liked it, a little spicy but we enjoyed eating it!!

  2. April says:

    Hi! I love your books and your blog! I am currently in the midst of making your “best chicken you will ever eat, and I may have ruined it. I fell asleep during the brining, and didn’t have time to rinse and store the breast prior to rushing out to work. Do you think it’s still good and not over seasoned? *Fingers crossed*

    • Mel says:

      I’ve brined for up to 24 hours and it’s fine. The only issue is that the texture of the chicken can get a little weird after that long — but the taste should be OK.

      • April says:

        Thank you! The chicken turned out AMAZING! I ate it for lunch over spinach salad with a little Tessamae’s Paleo Southwest Rach Dressing, so YUM. ;-)

  3. CH says:

    Can you also use a blender in place of fod processor

    • Mel says:

      Yes, you should be able to make the pesto in a blender. You might need to scrape down the sides a few times since there’s so little liquid.

  4. malori says:

    Delish!!! These might be even better than the Moroccan meatballs. Such a simple recipe – lots of ingredients but come together so easily. Me and the bf ate almost all of it :-)

  5. Lauren says:

    Just made these with ground turkey (when I made them with chicken they lasted like two days because I couldn’t stop eating them!). Turkey was just as good!

  6. Lori says:

    I have an allergy to tree nuts, can I omit the walnuts? Or replace it? I can have cashews and pistachios….

  7. Sara says:

    Just made these but stuffed them with a herb goat cheese and baked them instead! Soooo good!!! Zucchini noodles for the win :)

  8. Colleen says:

    I absolutely love these meatballs. But I recently started a Paleo version of the SCD that doesn’t allow cream of tartar. I know there are a few different types of substitutions but I was wondering which you would recommend for this recipe? 1 egg? lime juice or vinegar + baking soda? Thanks!

    • You can either skip it all together or add an egg. The egg will help with leavening a bit. You could also use baking soda + red wine or balsamic vinegar; just a little vinegar to make the baking soda activate. Enjoy!

  9. Jaimewife says:

    Started researching Whole30 and found you through their website. I LOVE your blog! Quick question on the walnuts, hubby has a nut allergy and can only have pine nuts. Would that be an appropriate substitute? Thank you!!

  10. Julia says:

    What is the volume of pesto you add? I have pre-made pesto in the freezer.

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