Saturday, June 23, 2007

Chicken Salad: Summer’s Little Black Dress

There’s nothing like a little black dress for accessorizing. Dress it up, dress it down. Put it on when in doubt about appropriate attire. Wear it to the office, change the jewelry, shoes, and bag, lose the belt, and go out to dinner or a cocktail party. Hell, throw it on and wear it to the supermarket when all the clothes are in the laundry. You know the one I mean. Something Audrey Hepburn would wear. Plain black sheath, year-round impeccable fabric, versatile neckline, mid-knee length. Beyond reproach.
Chicken salad is the little black dress of the summer food scene. It dresses up or down. Its basic ingredients are top-notch. It’s the old reliable, never wrong, no matter the occasion. Everyone raves, and wonders: why don’t I make this? It’s not old-fashioned; it’s a classic, always in style.
My assessment of chicken salads goes way back. In the 1950s, some of the best were found in the form of a chicken salad sandwich, on white toast, at what can only be called “luncheonettes,” or even ice cream parlors, where women stopped for a break from shopping, or families got a sandwich and a sundae after the matinee. With my mother, and then with friends when I got old enough to go on my own, I have sampled hundreds, more likely thousands, of them at small places around the country. I still do.
The chicken salad I make today is only a kissing cousin of the 1950s chicken salad. I like to think it has preserved the best, while moving forward to a thoroughly modern place—much like the little black dress. I make two basic kinds, both of which lend themselves to infinite variation: a refined traditional one, made with poached (almost coddled) chicken and homemade mayonnaise; and a newer version, made with grilled chicken and a vinaigrette. Both go over like gangbusters with family and friends. Both make for satisfying solitary meals.
To make grilled salad, simply grill chicken breasts (boneless is all right here, but on the bone is preferable) briefly marinated with olive oil and salt and pepper, being careful not to overcook. When cool enough to handle, tear the meat into pieces and combine it with grilled onions and at least one other vegetable or fruit. Grilled peppers (especially red bell or poblano); grilled corn off the cob, grilled zucchini, sliced avocado, grilled peaches or pineapple, crisp blanched green beans, grilled figs, roasted garlic, or most any combination works well. Toss with a flavorful vinaigrette, seasoned with salt and pepper and herbs of your choice. Basil is my standby; mustard, fruit juices, honey, and other additions to vinaigrette are optional. Serve on a big platter over a fresh salad of plain leaf lettuce lightly dressed with the same vinaigrette. Garnish with sliced tomatoes if you like. The salad in the photo is grilled chicken (including the crispy skin), grilled poblano, grilled fig, grilled garlic, and grilled onion, tossed with a sherry vinaigrette made in a 3:1 ratio of oil to vinegar, with chopped coriander. Go lightly on the dressing, because even without it, grilled salads are moist and flavorful: try it before dressing, and you’ll see.
Delicious. But my heart belongs to the chicken salad of my childhood:

Traditional Chicken Salad
The secrets to great traditional chicken salad are purity and restraint. Keep it simple: moist poached chicken on the bone, homemade mayonnaise, and proper seasoning. This will serve 2-3. If you plan to serve it within an hour or so of preparation, it's best not to refrigerate. If refrigerated, take it out ahead at least a half-hour before serving.
1 whole chicken breast, split, skin on, preferably from your local farmer (about 1 ½ lb)
½ medium onion, cut in half, and 1 small clove garlic, both unpeeled
½ tea salt
8 peppercorns
1 small bay leaf and a few sprigs parsley (optional)
water to cover
1/3 cup homemade mayonnaise (last post)
½ cup celery, finely chopped (about 1 average stalk)
salt and pepper to taste
In a large pot with a lid, place the chicken, onion, garlic, salt, peppercorns, and additional herbs if using, and barely cover with water. Put the lid on, and bring to a boil, then reduce to a moderate simmer, leaving a crack in the lid. Cook about 12-15 minutes, or until meat is just firm and begins to pull gently from the breast bone. Remove from the heat, but leave the chicken in the broth, lid on, until it cools to warm room temperature.
To make salad, place the mayonnaise in a bowl. De-rib and chop celery. Remove and discard the skin from the chicken, pull the meat off the bone with your fingers into bite-size shreds, and combine it with the mayonnaise and celery. The meat should be extremely tender. Taste, and correct for seasoning with salt and pepper. If your mayonnaise is very thick, you can thin it with a little cream or some of the poaching water, now a light broth. You can serve it as above for the grilled salad, over a leaf lettuce salad garnished with sliced tomato, or treat yourself to the following:
Chicken Salad Sandwich. Use thin-sliced, good-quality white bread, nothing too artisanal. Toast; spread with mayonnaise, and lay on the chicken salad generously. Add leaf lettuce of your choice. When the tomatoes are in, you can make a chicken club, placing the lettuce, along with sliced tomato and bacon, between the second and third slices of toast. I like my chicken salad sandwich with a glass of champagne.
Chicken Salad California. During the ‘70s, it was popular in California to mix chicken salad with peeled green (Thomson) seedless grapes and slivered, toasted almonds. This is sometimes called “Veronique,” and it’s quite nice. Other California-style combinations are raisins and walnuts (with the addition of apple, it becomes a chicken Waldorf salad); avocado and sun-dried tomatoes; or snipped dried apricots and pistachios. Some of these you might want to add a touch of honey, chutney, or soft preserve to. I’m not a fan of adding a lot of spices, like curry powder, but go ahead if you want.
RI Swiss Chicken Salad Canapes. When I was in college during the 60s, I cooked one summer for a woman from New York whose Park Avenue cook refused at the last minute to come up to Narragansett; in desperation, she turned to me. I did a large cocktail party for her one weekend, and this is one of the things I made, at her request. I have adapted the original recipe somewhat. Finely chop ½ cup blanched almonds. Let 3 poached chicken breast halves cool completely, then pull it off in big chunks and pulse briefly in the food processor to shred (in the 60s, I minced it by hand). Combine with about 1 cup of grated Swiss cheese and two tablespoons of grated parmesan, and add enough mayonnaise to make a moist, spreadable paste. Add in, bit by bit, a little very finely grated onion (maybe a scant teaspoon), tasting as you go so as not to overpower it, and season with salt, white pepper, and fresh-grated nutmeg. Using a good Pullman-type bread, dried out a bit but not stale, spread on the mixture, trim the crusts (you of course should eat the timmings), cut into quarters, then broil briefly on a sheet pan until the mixture begins to bubble and brown. Pass with cocktails. (If you are feeling lazy, you can put the entire mixture in an oven-proof gratin dish, put it under the broiler, and serve with toast points for your guests to spread themselves.) This makes a party amount; if you don't have a crowd, you can put some of it aside in a bowl and have it as a sandwich or on crackers next day.

1 comment:

anne said...

As I was reading your comments on chicken salad I could only think of one thing - how good chicken salad is when it is freshly made and quickly served. Once it has been referigerated it loses its appeal. I am looking forward to trying your swiss chicken salad canapes.