Not Your Average Chicken Salad

October 11, 2012

Gourmet Chicken Salad

First of all, it’s not your average chicken. I eat meat so rarely that when I go out of my way for it, which I do when my body sends up a persistent yearning, I go for the best.

A label that says “free-range” or “natural” will not sway me when what I really want is USDA-certified organic. But even that is often second-best. For instance, many organic chickens are fed an all-vegetarian diet and labeled proudly to that effect. Which is good because it means that chicken was not fed scraps of other chickens (yes that happens), but it’s not great.  A chicken isn’t naturally vegetarian. It likes to eat bugs and grubs and ticks and sprouts and seeds. To fully express its chickenness, as Joel Salatin would put it, a healthy, happy chicken needs to roam free and peck at the ground, composing its own salad as it goes along. My dear salad-loving friends, let a chicken be your guide. Ideally, a good local chicken. Find a farmer near you. If for no other reason than the taste. It really does make a difference.

Chicken salad over greens

I buy my chicken whole and cook it in the simplest way possible – rinsing it thoroughly then immersing it in a pot of cold water which I then warm over medium-low heat and let simmer gently for a good two hours, until the meat comes easily from the bone and the broth, and indeed my entire kitchen, is rich with the essence of chickenness. I strain and jar up the broth to enrich future soups and leave the meat out to cool just long enough until I can comfortably pick it from the bones and chop it into bite-sized pieces.

To make the salad, I add as much chopped veggies as there is meat – red bell peppers, carrots, celery, and parsley, and quick-pickled red onion. I sliver a small Spanish onion or half of a large one and put it aside in a bowl, sprinkled liberally with salt and a few dashes of red wine vinegar, for ten minutes. (That’s all it needs and it is worth it, mellowing the bitter bite-back of raw onion and adding a pleasant tang – thanks to Tamar Adler for this tip.) In this particular salad, I sprinkled a few capers and black currants, but in another I might substitute fennel for the celery and add grapes. Or you could add fresh basil and sun-dried tomatoes if you prefer.

Cram it into a sandwich or lay it out on a bed of greens, as I do here.

As for dressing, any vinaigrette will do. Mine is simply 2/3 cup olive oil, 1/3 cup red wine vinegar, black pepper, and a heaping tablespoon of dijon mustard. The tiny particles in the mustard will keep help emulsify the oil, which is a fancy way of saying it will help keep it from separating from the vinegar quite so fast.

If you’re more of a honey-mustard lover, then by all means, add a tablespoon of honey, honey!

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