I am very particular about chicken salad. When it is good, it is very, very good, and when it is bad, it is awful. When its good, it is a perfect summer dish; served with homemade biscuits and some ripe melon it is an elegant and filling lunch, or light supper. Its also nice with a cup of Gazpacho.
The elements of “good” chicken salad (handed down to me by my mother and originally decreed by her mother) are very tender, poached white meat of chicken, enough mayonnaise to bind but not to be gloopy, and other tasteful additions which may include celery, grapes, cashews, raisins, almonds, dried cranberries and pecans. Rotisserie chicken may be used in a pinch, but only the white meat.
The elements of “bad” chicken salad include, but are not limited to: dark meat, gristly bits, chicken that has been cooked by boiling, broiling or frying, Miracle Whip, excessive Mayonnaise, pickles and onions. This is just my opinion, of course, but (as is generally the case) I believe that I’m correct.
Here is my recipe for chicken salad, loosely based on the amazing version served at The Mercantile Tea Room in Oberlin Ohio in the mid-1980s. It may seem to involve a lot of work, but its worth every minute.
“Merc” Chicken Salad (Serves 4 as a Main Dish)
- 4 bone-in chicken breasts with skin
- 1 onion
- 1 ripe avocado
- Roasted, salted cashews
- Mayonnaise (full-fat or light, never fat free)
First, poach the chicken. I use a crockpot for this. Line the bottom of your crock with some separated stalks of celery, some carrots (no need to peel), and an onion cut in half (again, no need to peel). These will give your poached chicken a great deal of flavor. The use of chicken breasts with skin and bones will also enhance flavor and tenderness, so please don’t be tempted to use boneless, skinless breasts unless you are desperately short on time. Place the chicken on top of the vegetables, and cook on the lowest possible temperature until the meat is very tender and the juices run clear when the largest piece is pierced with a fork.
Do not be tempted to add any liquid – you don’t need it. The poaching will take several hours in a crock pot (6-8 hours depending on the size of the breasts). I generally cook the chicken the day before I need it, and cool it overnight. You can also poach chicken in a large pot on top of the stove, using a medium-low setting, but it will cook faster and you’ll need to check more often.
Once the chicken is cooked and has cooled enough that it can be handled easily (food safety note: please cool it in the refrigerator) you should remove and discard the skin and bones. Cut the chicken into small cube, discarding any gristle, dark pieces or anything that looks even vaguely unappetizing. (This is my dogs’ favorite thing about chicken salad). Place the cubed chicken into a bowl.
Next, dice your avocado and add to the chicken, followed by at least a cup of cashews, more if you like. Start with half a cup of mayonnaise and mix gently, adding more until you have a mixture that is moist and bound together, but not “wet.” You can always add more later, if you decide that it looks dry.
Next time, try replacing the avocado and cashews with dried cherries or cranberries and toasted pecans, grapes and pecans, or apples and walnuts. Enjoy!