Originally posted June 29, 2012. Revised and updated May 2015.

My whole life I have loved the flavor of cilantro. The fresh aroma released from the leaves when they're torn off the stem or cut through with the blade of a knife takes me back into my mom's kitchen. She would add cilantro into so many of her dishes that when it wasn't there, food just didn't taste "like home." 

Cilantro is also called coriander and Chinese parsley. It's used widely in Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, Indian, Asian, Mexican and Caribbean cooking. Although this herb may look like flat leaf parsley, their flavors are distinctly different; to me, parsley has a "greener," almost grassy flavor, whereas cilantro has a brighter, pungent flavor. Unfortunately, some people may have a genetic predisposition to disliking cilantro (so sad!!), as explained in a 2010 New York Times article; to these folks, cilantro has a strong soap-like flavor, but a Japanese study showed that when the leaf is crushed or combined with other flavors (like in a pesto!), the soapy-taste mellows to a point where even cilantrophobes may be able to enjoy this magnificent herb!                                                                                                                                                                                       

Cilantro is the primary fresh herb I used when I started cooking in college and to this day, it is my go-to herb I add into soups, salads, stir fry, stew and (of course) my guacamole! It not only adds a ton of flavor, it's also good for health. Approximately two cups (28 grams) of raw cilantro provides 100% of our daily intake of vitamin K, high amounts of immune-boosting vitamins A and C, and heart healthy minerals like potassium, calcium and ron. 

In both my hometown of Nogales, AZ and in here in Tucson, cilantro is always one the lowest priced fresh herbs in the market. Typically priced at less than one dollar a bunch (I've even found it at three bunches for one dollar! Booyah!), it adds a beautiful brightness to dishes for extra flair. In this recipe, I’ve combined cilantro with garlic, parmesan cheese and lemon juice, giving the traditional basil pesto a Mexican-twist. This pesto sauce transforms a basic chicken pasta dish into a meal that’ll feast your eyes and satisfy your taste buds. 

Cilantro Pesto Pasta Ingredients

Cilantro Pesto Pasta with Chicken

Recipe by: Christy Wilson

Serves: 10
Cook time: 15 minutes
Ready in 30 minutes


  • 1 pound (16 ounces) whole wheat penne pasta
  • 1 bunch fresh cilantro, mostly leaves (about 2 cups)
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice or white wine vinegar
  • 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)
  • 1/2 cup walnuts
  • salt to taste (about 1/4 tsp)
  • 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 cups cooked chicken (roasted white meat to keep calories down)
  • 3 Roma or vine-ripened tomatoes, diced


  1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add pasta and return water to a boil. Cook pasta for about 10 minute or until al dente; drain well. Cover to keep warm.
  2. In an electric food processor or blender, blend cilantro, garlic, lemon juice, Parmesan cheese, cayenne pepper, nuts and salt.
  3. Add about half the amount of the olive oil and blend the pesto. Add more olive oil until the pesto reaches desired consistency.
  4. Pour pesto in a small saucepan and warm over low heat, stirring constantly, until pesto begins to simmer.
  5. Pour sauce into a large bowl; add pasta over sauce and toss to coat. Add chicken and toss again to mix all ingredients well.
  6. Top with fresh sliced tomato and more fresh cilantro to garnish. 

Nutrition Facts
per serving (approximately 1 cup):

Calories: 320; Protein: 13 grams: Carbohydrate: 36 grams; Dietary Fiber: 5 grams: Fat: 15 grams; Saturated fat: 2 grams; Trans fat: 0 grams; Cholesterol: 15 mg; Sodium: 100 mg;  Folate: 12 mcg; Iron: 1.5 mg

*This recipe and lead photo were featured in the Summer 2014 issue of Wheat Food Council's 'Kernels' online magazine.