The Simplest Chicken Salad?
I've decided it might be the best chicken salad. Thoughts, a recipe, and some deviled ham salad!
BY NOW, THOSE OF YOU WHO’VE BEEN WITH the Department of Salad since it was established in late 2020 (it was called Ye Olde Salad Trough way back then; not really) have become well aware of the fact that our definition of “salad” is purposely loosey-goosey.
And you probably also know that we are not a diet site. We’re not qualified to give dietary advice, plus the idea that salad is a diet dish is true only if you have an extremely limited idea of what a salad is (🥗)—or if you have never looked up the number of calories in a tablespoon of olive oil.
While we love nothing more than that giant leafy green salad simply dressed and emblazoned with all the “healthy” vegetables a farmer could possibly grow, we’d have gone out of business ages ago if that emoji version was in fact the only kind of salad that this planet—with all its countries and cultures—had spun into existence after all this time. (Man has been eating salad since the days of ancient Greece and Rome.)
In fact, if we have a credo, Number 1 at the top of the list of our beliefs would be: You can pretty much make salad out of anything.
We’re not saying you should, just that you could.
For instance, every time I visit my hometown in Galax, Virginia, I notice some salads for sale that I would never have thought to make. The truth is I can’t even stand to look at a couple of them.
And yet there they are, beloved enough to maintain their seasonally permanent spot in the refrigerator case marked SALAD not far from the SALAD BAR at the Food City (which is one of the few grocery stores left in a town of 6,000, thanks to Walmart, a place that continues to kill off independent grocers and destroy local commerce at an alarming clip. But that’s for another day. And I suppose I should be glad there’s a good grocery store at all.)
For a long time, my avert-your-eyes category has included the grape salad (I’ve circled it in the above photo of the Food City salad display case), which I refer to as Cream of Grapes. This is my extremely mature way of not calling it exactly what it looks like: Eyeball Salad. (Since it has pecans, I’m nonetheless compelled to pick it up and show it to whoever is with me at the moment, or to the odd passerby, and ask: “Do I have a pecan in my eyes?”)
I bring the grape salad up because it led in a psychologically circuitous way to my decision to give you both a delicious chicken salad—which had been my plan all along— and a delicious ham salad today. These two salads are perfect post-holiday dishes since they originated as ways of using up scraps and leftovers.
I’m still in grape-salad country (having come here for Easter and gotten waylaid by a few circumstances beyond my control), which is where I heard from one of my trusted food sources, Martha Kello (who is also my Aunt Mariah’s niece and was also here for Easter) that the grape salad can be quite delicious. So the boys in the lab will be looking into it.
I’m aware that I’ve got some pretty fuzzy logic going on here, but my reasons for finally taking ham salad for a spin today, after not eating it in decades, is that I realized I’d long ago unconsciously placed it in the grape-salad department of my brain, which has a Do Not Enter sign.
That sort of compartmentalizing can create a vicious cycle when it comes to food (and other fashionable things), which often goes like this: Love it as a kid, decide it’s passé and discard it for years, then get some distance and elevate it to hipster status, meaning an item no one but you is smart enough appreciate (this can be ironical or not).
It takes two kinds of lettuce (🥬 + $$) to keep the Department of Salad alive. The best way to support us: punch the green button.
But for me, ham salad happened somewhat differently: I dreaded seeing it in my lunch box, then really liked it, forgot about it, made fun of it the way I have grape salad, and, very recently, I became ham-salad/deviled-ham curious. Today, I want to elevate it to cult status, thanks to Martha Kello.
Like Mariah, Martha grew up in Courtland, Virginia, which is peanut- and ham-farming country (I recount her tasting tour of the area in my book). So I was reminded that there’d be no better person to get a deviled ham/ham salad recipe from.
Incidentally, according to John Mariani’s Encyclopedia of American Food & Drink deviled foods include “any variety of dishes prepared with hot seasonings, such as cayenne or mustard. The word derives from the association with the demon who dwells in hell. In culinary context the word first appears in print in 1786.” The method was applied to various meats, seafood, eggs, and even biscuits.
Aunt Mariah’s chicken salad reminds me of how fickle my food mind can be—not long ago, I was proclaiming the joys and glories of super-bedazzled chicken salads—and how that may actually be a good thing, especially during a time on this planet when it’s hard to figure out what comforts us. And Martha’s ham salad reminds me to keep an open mind always—because every time I’m rude to a salad, I regret it.
Both of these recipes are so beautiful in their simplicity—and perfect to serve festively with cocktails or to take to someone’s house when they need comfort.
*RECIPE: Mariah Nunn’s Chicken Salad
Aunt Mariah once took a big container of her tiny chicken-salad sandwiches to a bereaved family’s house after a funeral, and was met with many requests for the recipe. “But I don’t really have a recipe,” she replied. So after her nephew James sharpened all the knives over Easter weekend, Mariah walked me through her method, which I’ve turned into a recipe for you here. It’s the most divine chicken salad ever, simple and perfect and extremely soothing.
3 skin-on, bone-in chicken breasts, poached in salted water, with 1/2 of an onion (you don’t need all the other add-ins in that link, just the onion; you may also poach 3 boneless skinless breasts)
1/2 cup chopped sweet pickles (Aunt Mariah uses Martha Kello’s Virginia Sweet Chunk Pickles. The recipe is in my book, a screen shot of which follows directly below, but a decent substitute for these pickles—which are the best pickles I’ve ever had in my life, and which the Kello-Nunn clan hides from one another in brown paper bags under car seats—are sweet gherkins)
1/2 cup very finely chopped onion
1/2 cup finely chopped celery
1/3 cup mayonnaise (preferably Duke’s)
1/2 cup pickle juice, more or less to taste
Salt and pepper to taste
Once the chicken has cooled, remove skin and bone. Finely chop all but 1/2 of a single breast. Chop the half breast into chunks then process it in a food processor (a mini one works beautifully) until it is destroyed to featheriness. (This is important; it creates a mesh texture to hold the salad together.)
Add all the chicken to a large bowl with the pickles, onions, and celery and toss to combine. Stir in mayonnaise and pickle juice. Season with salt and pepper. Taste for more mayonnaise and pickle juice, keeping in mind that this is a slightly dry salad that treats mayonnaise less as an ingredient and more as a mere binding agent. More mayonnaise may be added on the sandwich bread, if desired.
Serve on soft white bread with the crusts removed, cut on the diagonal. You may also serve on rye bread rounds, topless and sprinkled with parsley or with tops and rolled in parsley. Or no parsley.
MARTHA’S VIRGINIA SWEET CHUNK PICKLES, from the pages of The Comfort Food Diaries
*Recipe: Deviled Ham Salad (adapted from Martha Kello’s Recipe Collection)
Martha’s original recipe uses 100 percent country ham. In her part of Virginia, the Tidewater, “country ham” always means the signature, salt-cured smokehouse hams that have been elevated to a beautiful art. The flavor is more subtle than what we eat in Blue Ridge Mountains, which is super-salty and often cooked to a leathery texture. I adapted the recipe to use what I have here in Galax, a chunk of local cured ham and a few slices of leathery, local country ham. It works; the blend of sweetness with chewy salty bits seemed perfect for a recipe meant to use up scraps left behind on the carving board. If you’re a novice and would like to try out really good Virginia ham, we all order from Edwards and I would recommend you start with the Cooked Boneless Petite Country Ham. I grew up in a factory town—my first ham salad was the kind with the dancing devil on the package—so maybe I should lay off the ham snobbery.
1 pound of country ham or regular cured baked ham (I used ¾ pounds brown-sugar cured ham and 3 cooked slices salty country ham)
1 small jar of green salad olives (I used a 5.7-ounce jar)
1 red bell pepper, trimmed, seeded, finely chopped
1/4 cup mayonnaise (preferable Duke’s)
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Zest of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
Tabasco sauce, to taste (or use your favorite hot sauce)
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard (more to taste)
Cut ham into chunks and process in food processor. (You can do this until it is still slightly chunky or practically a paste. I like it somewhere between the two.)
Drain and process olives in food processor.
In a large bowl, toss together the ham, olives, and chopped peppers until well combined. Stir in mayonnaise, lemon juice and zest, Worcestershire, Tabasco, and mustard. Taste and adjust. You probably won’t need salt. Serve on pumpernickel or rye rounds. (Use round cookie cutter or small juice glass to cut rounds). Top with fresh parsley.
That’s It! We’re done here! Except for one important housekeeping note: My return from Virginia to Atlanta (where the salad lab is located) has been delayed, which means I’ve also been delayed in getting this bulletin to you. I’ve learned that I can pause paid subscriptions, which effectively extends your subscriptions for however long I’m absent. If I ever hit a snag like this again, that’s what I’ll do.
ALSO: YES, WE ARE STILL WORKING ON PRINTABLE RECIPES. They’re coming soon, and we’re converting the entire archive, beginning with the most recent and working backward.
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