Not Your Childhood Chicken Salad
The term “chicken salad” conjures for most people the versions they grew up with: the mayonnaise-y interpretations with the chopped celery, or the cafeteria style plopped on a plate with an ice cream scoop, or any number of serviceable, reliable but ultimately dull renditions. Don’t get me wrong: No doubt hundreds of other fabulous chicken salads exist. But when I asked some friends the other day, they described bland chicken salad sandwiches.Posted — Updated
The term “chicken salad” conjures for most people the versions they grew up with: the mayonnaise-y interpretations with the chopped celery, or the cafeteria style plopped on a plate with an ice cream scoop, or any number of serviceable, reliable but ultimately dull renditions. Don’t get me wrong: No doubt hundreds of other fabulous chicken salads exist. But when I asked some friends the other day, they described bland chicken salad sandwiches.
So I began to think of this refreshing summery dish of chicken with miso dressing more as a delightful cold lunch or supper, and less as a chicken salad per se, despite the cucumbers and lettuce leaves in evidence.
You need to start with cooked cold chicken. I prefer to roast or very gently boil a whole one (several hours ahead or up to a day or two in advance). Some may choose to buy a rotisserie chicken, but I haven’t had much luck finding one of those that is seasoned or cooked properly. You could also poach or grill chicken breasts, taking care not to overcook them.
I like miso dressing, especially its nutty, nuanced flavor and creamy texture. Sometimes, I make it thick and spoonable, and other times thin enough to drizzle. Miso dressing can be used with a green salad, or as a replacement for mayonnaise on a sandwich. Depending on its thickness, it also makes a great dip for vegetables.
Miso, that fermented marvel, is usually made from soybeans, but some kinds are made from barley, wheat or even brown rice. For dressings, I usually prefer the milder white miso (shiro), but yellow (shinshu) or red (aka) are other choices to play with.
From your pantry, you’ll also need rice wine vinegar, mirin or sake and toasted sesame oil. If you don’t have Asian sesame paste, use Middle Eastern tahini.
Hand-shredding the chicken meat into one-inch strips takes a little time; using a knife is somewhat faster. But I advise against cubes, because the dressing coats shredded chicken more evenly.
I like to pile the dressed chicken on a platter, but leave the other ingredients naked, green and crisp. That way, diners can decide how to go about eating this salad. Some people may fill little lettuce cups or roll the chicken into lettuce-leaf wraps. Others may prepare a chopped salad on their plate using a knife and fork.
It’s a fresh-tasting casual meal. It’s also very pretty, sprinkled with scallions and sesame seeds.
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
Total time: 30 minutes
2 tablespoons Asian sesame paste or tahini
4 tablespoons white (shiro) miso
3 tablespoons rice-wine vinegar
1 tablespoon mirin, sake or sherry
1 teaspoon grated ginger
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1/2 teaspoon roasted sesame oil
1/4 cup vegetable oil
Salt and pepper
Small pinch of cayenne (optional)
1 (3-pound) chicken, cooked
2 heads small organic iceberg, Little Gems or romaine hearts
2 medium cucumbers, peeled and sliced 1/8-inch thick, lightly salted
3 tablespoons thinly sliced scallions or chives
1 teaspoon toasted sesame seeds, for garnish
1 teaspoon toasted black sesame seeds, for garnish
1. Put sesame paste, miso, vinegar, mirin, ginger, sugar and lemon zest in a small mixing bowl. Whisk together until well combined. Whisk in sesame and vegetable oils. Check seasoning and adjust with salt, pepper and cayenne, if using. You should have about 2/3 cup dressing. If it seems too thick, thin with a tablespoon or 2 of water.
2. Remove skin from chicken and pull all the meat from the carcass. With fingers or a knife, shred all the chicken meat into 1-inch strips and put in a medium mixing bowl. (Refrigerate or freeze any remaining skin, fat, bones and cartilage for making broth.) You should have about 4 cups shredded chicken.
3. Separate the lettuce leaves and arrange on a large platter, leaving space for the chicken at the center, then scatter with cucumber slices.
4. Gently toss the shredded chicken with salt and pepper. Pour all but a few tablespoons of dressing over the chicken and gently toss to coat. Transfer dressed chicken to center of platter and nap with remaining dressing. Sprinkle scallions and sesame seeds on top and serve.
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