Friday, 13 May 2011

A Response to Wednesday's (and Thursday's) Warm Weather: Homemade Chicken Salad

As I sat in my office Wednesday afternoon, keeping cool from the warm weather, I began to think about barbecuing. It was certainly a good day for it, and it had certainly been a while since the threat of rain did not hamper our spirits. Yet, the thought of grilling outdoors eventually became unappealing. My response, then, was to think about typical picnic fare side dishes. And then it dawned on me: one of my favourites is chicken salad, the most memorable of which I can place at The Cove (Leland, MI). It has been a while since I had it, but the simple combination of dried cherries, juicy chicken, and fresh cantaloupe is one that transports me to the water and speaks volumes of what summer eating is all about. With all of this in mind, I clocked out and headed to the grocery store, purchased my ingredients (including stuff for today’s cooking), and returned to the apartment apparently salivating for flavours to be expected. However, as has been the case for most of these posts at this point, I have never made chicken salad nor have ever read about it. Armed with what I could remember of the best chicken salads I have had in the past and guided by suggestions by my colleagues, I turned on “Top Chef Masters” and continued my weekly tradition (it seems) of cooking with the chefs.

In all actuality, I find chicken salad to be fairly foolproof, so long as you combine ingredients you enjoy. Start off by bringing a seasoned (pinches of ground sea salt and black pepper, and a healthy pinch of paprika) pot of water  to a rapid boil on med-hi; once you’re there, reduce the heat to med-lo and carefully drop in your chicken. You do not want to leave the water boiling, as boiling the chicken will apparently make them rubbery; the goal here is to cook the chicken thoroughly while retaining moisture. For this recipe, I went with 1.33 lbs (9 pieces) chicken tenderloins. You can certainly go with bigger cuts, but the tenderloins cook really quickly and happened to be on sale. After 5 minutes of covered cooking, uncover the chicken and use a pair of tongs, a fork, etc., to move the tenderloins around to make sure they all cook pretty evenly. Re-cover the pot and get about ½ c sliced almonds on to a baking sheet and into a pre-heated 350 °F oven.

After another 5 minutes of cooking, uncover the pot, move the tenderloins around, and re-cover one last time. Move quickly so you can check on your almond slices. They should be slightly golden brown (or even look finished). Give the pan a bit of a shake and redistribute the almond slices to again promote even toasting. After 5 more minutes, take one of the tenderloins out of the pot and give it a few slice checks to make sure it has cooked through completely. If so, take the remaining tenderloins out and leave them to rest (as you would do for beef or pork before cutting into it so all the juices stay intact) on a clean plate to cool down. Your almond slices should also be done at this point and may turn to a darker golden brown; do not let it get any darker than this, or else they will taste more bitter than toasted. Also, transfer all the almond slices to a bowl to cool down. You may hear a crackling sound; those are the oils that have been released during the toasting process. Keep those oils all together in the bowl, and not on the pan where the residual heat will cook off the oils and darken the almonds even more.

With everything now cooled down, it’s finally time to start marrying all these wonderful components together.

Cube the chicken into bite-sized pieces and transfer them to a medium size mixing bowl. To this, add 2 c red seedless grapes which have been halved or cut in thirds, depending on the size of the grape. As a side note, make sure you select grapes that are still firm. If you purchase about 1 lb red seedless grapes, you should be able to get 2 c easily and then some, especially when considering not all of them will be perfect. Next up, take a scant ¼ c dried red cherries (or more if you would like) and give them a rough chop; this will add another layer of texture and a slight tang to the chicken salad. Add in your toasted almond slices and top everything off with 2.5 stalks celery chopped into bite-sized pieces. Gently fold all the ingredients together, taking care not to mash up the grapes or break up the almond slices too badly.

Finally, for the creaminess often associated with chicken salad—and as a vehicle for the different flavours—gently fold in ¾ c mayonnaise. Add generous pinches of ground sea salt, black pepper, and paprika. Give this all a taste and add more seasoning until you find the right balance. If you have the patience, put the chicken salad in the refrigerator and give the juices some time to meld together. I, however, did not have much patience last night and so I hollowed out a cantaloupe half and scooped in some chicken salad. I was in so much in a rush to eat that I realised right after the first bite I had forgotten the most notable component of the chicken salad presentation: cutting cantaloupe across a jagged line. And so, I emptied out the cantaloupe, made the appropriate cuts, and refilled it. The cantaloupe serves as a great way to cut down the richness of the mayo without having to fuss with the mayo itself.

Yesterday morning, I received quite a few boxes in the mail. I received my copy of Jonathan Dixon's newly published book Beaten, Seared, and Sauced: On Becoming a Chef at the Culinary Institute of America (2011), as well as David Lebovitz's The Sweet Life in Paris: Delicious Adventures in the World's Most Glorious—and Perplexing—City (2009). In addition, I received a free vegetable peeler for previewing a book titled “It’s All about Dessert” (not pictured). And if that wasn't enough, my Ateco stainless steel round form also arrived.

And so, with leftover chicken salad and cantaloupe brought into work and in the office fridge, there was one thing that definitely had to be done: break in the round form. Oh yes, and other leftovers were consumed today, including chocolate chip cookies and chocolate frozen custard which I formed into a sandwich. For the rest of the chicken salad photos from yesterday and today, click here.

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