When I look back on my girlhood, I don't remember dances or old beaus--I think about chicken salad. Even then, I was a bit obsessed with food, and my mother didn't have to cajole me to attend teas and luncheons. Nothing could compete with a buffet table: silver platters piled high with petit fours, lemon squares, pecan tassies, pastel mints, and tea sandwiches. An itty bitty chicken salad sandwich could make me swoon. At every event, I stood in line, imagining the first bite: the bread would be soft and barely there, but the salad would be cold, like touching your lips to glacial water, followed by warmth, comfort, and crunch, laced with mayonnaise and sweet bits of meat. One was never enough, but my mother was watching. Only uncouth, unladylike females reached for a second helping, and I tried to restrain myself in front of the chicken salad police.
And each offering was different. Sometimes the ladies added chopped pecans, grapes, pickle relish, boiled eggs, tomatoes, crushed pineapple, or crunchy Chow Mein noodles. In the pre-Hippie era, kitchen experimentation was acceptable for the ladies, but it was also war.
Before you make the salad, prepare the chicken* in seasoned water.
In a large pan, add 3 pounds chicken breasts. Add water to cover, then drop in onion slices, a celery stalk, fresh herbs, 1 peeled, whole garlic pod, 1 bay leaf, peppercorns (1 t.), and salt. Use whatever strikes your fancy--and will work with your salad. Like my mother always says, "Never miss an opportunity to add flavor." Seasoned water infuses flavor into your chicken. Use your imagination. Cook the chicken over a low flame 15-20 minutes or until done. Remove the chicken from the pan and cool, then chop.
Now it's time to make a basic mayonnaise* sauce,
1/2 cup mayonnaise (I prefer Dukes)
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
Salt and Pepper to taste
Season your mayonnaise sauce.
1 teaspoon honey
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon white wine vinegar (or champagne vinegar)
2 tablespoons sour cream (if you don't like sour cream, omit and add 2 T mayonnaise)
I like to add a few drops of Tabasco (but I'm from Louisiana, and it's practically a state law to keep a bottle of Tabasco on the kitchen table).
To the sauce, add your favorite solid ingredients: nuts, fruit, vegetables. Be adventurous!
Tarragon-Apple Chicken Salad
1/2 cup diced onion
1 cup tart apples, chopped
1/2 cup finely chopped celery
2/3 cup chopped toasted pecans
2 Tablespoons fresh tarragon, chopped
Mix. Add the chopped chicken. Blend.
Cover the bowl with plastic wrap. Chill for several hours. Serve on crusty bread, lettuce leaves, or spoon into pre-baked puff pastry cups or make crustless tea sandwiches. Serves 4-6
Tarragon adds a feminine element, complimenting the apples and honey with an exotic, aromatic hint, but at the same time it provides balance for savory ingredients. But if you aren't quite sold on tarragon, add 1/8 t. to a scoop of chicken salad. Do you like the exotic flash of anise? My mother hates it. You can always substitute another herb.
(*This recipe for basic chicken salad was published in Consuming Passions, my food memoir/cookbook, Harpercollins, 1999.)
I'm not breaking new culinary ground. It's hard to reinvent the standards, and chicken salad is pretty much a classic. Nowadays, everyone has at least one favorite recipe, and they have stories to tell. But I just felt like talking to you today and hearing about the delicious--and strange--things you've seen in chicken salad. Are you game?