The use of store-bought rotisserie chickens as a springboard to fast-but-tasty meals in your kitchen is getting loads of play these days. And it's for a very good reason: A de-constructed supermarket chicken can indeed save a cook time and energy when you’ve got chicken fajitas on the brain but only about 20 minutes to make it happen. Or just need some low-fat protein to tuck into your chicken and veggie roll-ups. Or to plop on top of a fettuccini alfredo concept.
With all of that convenience in mind, I set out to assemble my thoughts and recipes on turning those supermarket birds into chicken salads. After all, summer is my favorite time to assemble them. They taste especially good when the weather is mild and the landscape expansive and welcoming. So why not use a rotisserie chicken to start?
I almost had myself convinced, and then something happened on the way to my test kitchen. My inner James Beard took over and suddenly I simply couldn’t pull the trigger on the idea of using what inevitably is an extremely brined and over-cooked bird on something I treasure so deeply. You see, the great father of American cuisine had strong opinions about chicken salad. He shared those opinions in his wonderful book on food, “Delights and Prejudices.” Published in 1964, I didn’t catch up to it until 1982. But Beard’s words had impact for me. Particularly his description of how he learned to make chicken salad from Let, his family’s cook:
“(Let) would take one or two large stewing chickens and separate the dark meat from the white. The dark meat along with the giblets, 1 large onion stuck with cloves, a bay leaf, a sprig of parsley, a few celery leaves and salt would be covered with cold water. The pot was covered, and the water brought to the boiling point. After the dark meat had cooked for 30 minutes, the white meat was added and the simmering was continued until the meat was tender. Care was taken to prevent overcooking. When it was cooled, the meat was torn from the bones and cut in fairly large pieces. This was tossed with a fine mayonnaise seasoned to taste. It was served with a garnish of black olives, capers and hard-boiled eggs. Additional mayonnaise was passed. If the salad was served at a party, only white meat was used; but for a picnic or family consumption, the dark meat was added. Sometimes walnut meats were added, or almonds. Other additives might include fresh tarragon, fresh chopped parsley or capers, but nothing to overpower the taste of good chicken and good mayonnaise.”
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My own approach to chicken salad construction definitely has been colored by Beard’s belief, which is to say, figure on using the best ingredients, beginning with chicken that has been cooked in a manner that will yield the most delicious outcome.
That doesn’t mean that the resulting salad can’t be scintillating in its content. Just thoughtfully assembled.
Indeed, my chicken salads tend to be a process. One recent summer morning I poached a chicken in half a pot of water with some coarsely chopped cloves of garlic, a couple sprigs of fresh rosemary, and some salt and pepper. Around dinnertime, and long after the poached chicken had cooled its heels in the fridge, I pulled enough white and dark meat from the bird to feed two people, and cut it into bite-sized chunks. Then I seasoned the chicken lightly with a little salt and pepper, added a finely minced green onion, and snipped about 1 teaspoon of fresh dill into it, along with enough sour cream and mayonnaise to barely hold the mixture together. I didn’t want to drown out the pure flavor of the chicken or dill. In another bowl I tossed together some baby lettuce greens with a few shavings of Parmegano Regiano cheese and a simple vinaigrette that I’d flavored with some finely minced fresh oregano. I divided the salad between two plates, then cozied a few slices of backyard tomato up against the greens, along with a healthy spoonful of the chicken salad. It was a divine meal.
What follows are a few more approaches to chicken salad. Perhaps one or two will inspire your own inner cook, James Beard or otherwise. Bon appetit!