Escapism Made Easy
Chicken salad, take me away!
IT’S A DEPARTMENT OF SALAD THEME LATELY: Wow, it would be so nice to get away from how awful everything is in this country.
But today, I’m not interested in simply leaving the country. I’d like to escape the entire planet. So I guess I’ll have to get SpaceX’s Elon Musk to unblock me on Twitter (which he was going to buy in order to promote free speech, except, apparently, for me). I’ll make friends with him and he can shoot me into space.
If you’re unaware of exactly how awful things are right now, please don’t blame me for pointing it out, as a (former) reader did when I had the nerve to complain about the pandemic killing people. (No salad for her!) Perhaps some of you are incognizant of the extremely terrible vibe on this planet because you are vacationing in a dark, hermetically sealed spa/tomb buried deep beneath a polar ice cap, like the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, in Svalbard, Norway, whose glaciers are melting at an alarming rate, by the way. But never mind. We all do the best we can, I suppose.
Anyway, if I had my way right now, I’d just stay in bed all week. Whenever I feel this way, I think of The Eating-in-Bed Cookbook, by Barbara Ninde Byfield, which an old friend gave me years ago. It’s wonderful, but it has only one salad in it—a nice-looking mango and watercress number. And as funny as I find the whole book—which includes Meat Bawls, Shoulder of Lamb to Cry On, Baron of Beef in Bed, and Pomegranates Inferno—the recipes are actually awful for eating in bed. It’s best never to soil one’s nest. (Which is why we should be fighting climate change with every fiber of our collective being, but I don’t want to upset any of you who like a dying planet better than a healthy, thriving one.)
Previously, when I was in this mood I bravely got out of bed and took you with me (in my mind) to Australia, a place I often dream of escaping to. But today we’re leaving the continental United States for Guam and then zooming off to Italy.
And we’re having chicken salad in both places.
As I’ve said here, many times, I never feel safer than when I have chicken salad in the fridge, tucked away in its little Tupperware container, getting even more delicious as the flavors become so intimate with one another they become a new thing altogether, like you and your first inappropriately boundary-less college relationship. Plus: a little extra protein never hurts in times of duress!
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I’m working in curator rather than creator mode today, which is why I decided to investigate two rather than just one of the chicken salads I’ve had my eye on, just in case one was not absolutely delicious. Since they’re from books I’m crazy about—Cucina Rustica, by Viana La Place and Evan Kleiman, and United Tastes of America, by Gabrielle Langholtz (an early DOS guest)—they both were. And they’re insanely easy—partly because they use rotisserie chickens, which I have tended to ignore throughout my lifetime. In retrospect, that seems like an oversight.
I see both of these as belonging to the Fancy Desk Lunch category and/or the Eat Straight Out of the Tupperware category, but obviously there’s nothing lovelier than a beautifully plated pile of chicken salad on lettuce leaves when you’re having people over or feeding your family a Sunday lunch.
Both of these salads are soothing and surprising. Is there a better combination? The first one has the retro twinkle of toasted pine nuts—I haven’t had a pine nut in some time, and I had begun to think of them as extraneous in every dish. They are not. And when I see a recipe that has julienned cornichons, I start julienning cornichons, no questions asked.
The second one, true to the kind of salad you’d expect to consume on a tropical island in the Western Pacific, is weighed down by absolutely nothing. It uses no oil and is vivid and unpredictable— you’ll marvel at the sneaky power of a bit of unsweetened coconut, forget it’s there, then marvel again.
*RECIPE: Insalata di Pollo ai Peperoni e Pinoli (AKA Chicken Salad with Peppers and Pine Nuts), from Cucina Rustica
Serves 4 as a main dish
The original recipe calls for poached chicken breasts thinly sliced. But I’ve shredded rotisserie chicken here because: hello, easy! And I love the shreddy texture. The recipe calls for a green pepper among the three this recipe employs, which you may substitute for an orange, red, or yellow here, if you like.
4 chicken breasts from 2 rotisserie chickens, bones and skin removed (you can also use just one rotisserie chicken, with the meat from the thighs and legs included; you want about 4 generous cups of meat)
1 small yellow pepper
1 small red pepper
1 small orange pepper
1/3 cup pine nuts
1 head romaine lettuce
6 to 8 cornichons
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Shred the chicken using two forks or your human-being hands (that’s what I do; I don’t need no stinking forks; I saw a woman do this in a stand mixer—and that seems like a great idea, which I may try later).
Toast the pine nuts in a dry sauté pan over medium low heat, stirring frequently, until they turn a light brown color. Be careful: this happens fast. Remove them immediately to a plate to cool.
Using a vegetable peeler, peel the peppers. Trim them, remove the seeds and membrane, and cut into thin julienne. Now cut the romaine into julienne strips, as well as the cornichons.
Place the lettuce strips in the bottom of a shallow bowl. Arrange the chicken, peppers, cornichons, and pine nuts on top. Drizzle with the olive oil and lemon juice; season with salt and pepper. You may show this off at the table first before tossing, tasting, and adding more salt and pepper as needed.
*RECIPE: Guamanian Chicken Salad with Coconut, from United Tastes of America
One thing I love about this salad, aside from the way it arrived in my life at the perfect time, is how the size of each flavor can be completely up to you. I found I wanted more jalapeño than suggested, and, as usual for me, more lemon. So the second time I made it I nearly doubled both. It was fantastic both ways, but my point is: If the salad is just for you and a lemon-loving, jalapeño-happy friend, fly your freak flag.
3 to 4 lemons
1 rotisserie chicken (about 2 pounds), skinned, deboned, meat shredded (you want about 4 cups)
1/2 cup shredded frozen coconut (unsweetened); you may also use an actual coconut, grated
1 bunch scallions (about 5), roots trimmed, white and green parts thinly sliced
1/2 small red onion, finely chopped
2 jalapeño peppers, seeded and finely chopped (optional; however: I insist)
Flakey sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
With a microplane (aka a rasp-style grater), finely zest 1 lemon. Juice the rest of them until you have 1/2 cup juice.
Place the shredded chicken in a large bowl. Add the lemon zest and juice, coconut, scallion, red onion, and jalapeños. Toss well to combine.
Season the salad with salt and pepper. Taste. Adjust lemon, salt, and pepper before serving.
🥬 ONE MORE THING We’ve gotten a start on PRINTABLE RECIPES! You’ll start finding downloadable PDF files (SEE IT? ABOVE?) at the end of each recipe, working backward, until we have them all done. CONFUSED? Check the archive if you lose track of your e-mailed newsletter.
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