A trip to Italy forever changed the way I think about chicken salad. There I encountered a dish called pollo forte, which literally translates as “strong chicken,” a reference to the hot peppers in the salad. Served outside in the sun with a glass of Chianti and some hearty bread, it was wonderful: pieces of tender, grilled chicken tossed with garlic, olives, tomatoes, and a tangy vinaigrette—now this was a chicken salad I could get excited about.
Thinking back on that meal, I realized that it was the grilling that really made a difference. The slightly smoky flavor from the grill allowed the meat to hold its own against the vivid flavors of the salad’s other ingredients. And the caramelized crust from the grill gave the meat added texture. Had the same salad been made with poached chicken, it wouldn’t have been nearly as good.
Yet tender, almost soft poached chicken is just right for another favorite chicken salad of mine, one with milder flavors of fruits and nuts and a creamy dressing made from mayonnaise and yogurt. Here, that smokiness that was so wonderful in the pollo forte would come across as harsh, and the texture of the chicken would distract from, rather than enhance, the other ingredients.
Now, whenever I set out to make chicken salad, I first think about how to cook the chicken. There’s nothing wrong with throwing together a salad from leftover chicken, but if you’re starting from scratch, it makes sense to suit the cooking method to the rest of your ingredients.
THE RIGHT CHICKEN FOR THE JOB
Even though these chicken salad recipes are chock full of delicious ingredients, the chicken still takes center stage, so start with a brand you like. Mass-produced birds can offer consistency, but a fresh chicken from a local producer may be of better quality.
Roasting provides the most chicken flavor. To me, roasting is the best method for bringing out a chicken’s flavor. The skin protects the meat, keeping it juicy and flavorful. In my Chinese Chicken Salad, I brush the bird with soy sauce, molasses, and sesame oil to give it a more intense flavor during roasting. You can flavor a roast chicken for your own salad creation by rubbing it with a spice mixture, by stuffing it with a head of garlic, some rosemary, and a lemon or two, or by massaging an herb paste (like pesto) under the skin. At the very least, season the bird with ample salt and pepper and baste it regularly for the most flavorful chicken.
Grilling lends a smoky sweetness. The perfect summertime cooking method for chicken salads is grilling. The grilled flavor is especially good with vinaigrettes; the sweetness that comes from the charred spots where the meat touched the hot grill complements the dressing’s tangy components, like vinegar or lemon juice. I like to cook the chicken over hardwood or mesquite for even more flavor, but a gas grill is convenient and will give good results. Likewise, boneless, skinless breasts are quickest to grill; but watch them carefully to avoid overcooking them.
Poaching yields tender, delicate chicken. For the Chicken Salad with Fruits & Nuts, I prefer to poach the chicken. Poaching usually means less chicken flavor, but the meat becomes lusciously moist—and without a lot of fuss. Plus, a subtle-tasting bird isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially when the other ingredients are mild (such as the grapes, apples, and toasted nuts in this recipe). The texture of poached chicken also works really well with creamy dressings; it almost seems to absorb them. When poaching, use chicken pieces with skin and bones intact; they add flavor and help keep the chicken moist. I often add aromatics to the poaching liquid to further imbue the chicken with flavor: a few sprigs of parsley or thyme, a bay leaf or two, a few peppercorns, chopped leeks, or slices of ginger.
DRESS SALADS WITH MORE THAN JUST MAYO
I distinguish chicken salads from salads served with chicken by how the ingredients are handled. If everything gets dressed and tossed together, I call it a chicken salad. This is opposed to, say, a Caesar salad topped with strips of grilled chicken. (I know it’s a fine line, but it has to be drawn somewhere.) I also don’t consider pasta or rice that happens to have some chicken tossed with it true chicken salad; those, in my opinion, are pasta salads and rice salads.
But just what we’re tossing the salad with is open to interpretation. Mayonnaise, whether homemade or out of the jar, is the most traditional dressing. But the one-note richness of mayonnaise tends to mask the delicate flavor of chicken. Using yogurt, lemon juice, or sour cream in place of all or some of the mayonnaise not only adds flavor, but it also cuts back on the perceived richness of the dressing.
Vinaigrettes are another way to join the elements of the salad together. As opposed to creamy dressings, which can meld and mute the flavors of the salad, vinaigrettes shine a light on the individual ingredients, punching up the overall flavor of the salad. They can be as simple as some lemon juice whisked with olive oil or they can include garlic, herbs, and spices.
Dress the chicken while it’s still warm, but not too far ahead. If you plan to serve the salad soon after cooking the chicken, then I recommend tossing the still-warm chicken with its dressing. The meat will absorb more of the dressing and will therefore have more flavor. But—and this is an important but—don’t dress the chicken too far ahead. This is especially true for highly acidic dressings, like the one in my Chinese Chicken Salad, which continue to break down the proteins in the cooked chicken and will eventually turn it to mush. You can prepare all the elements of that salad ahead, but toss it at the last minute. The pollo forte actually benefits from some time spent in the vinaigrette, but that dressing is less acidic and the chicken pieces are sliced thicker.
Finally, while chicken salad is traditionally a sandwich filling, all these salads can stand on their own. The Chinese version looks pretty on the plate garnished with bright-green cilantro leaves. A lettuce cup is a civilized way to serve the Chicken Salad with Fruits & Nuts; the salad also makes a good sandwich. As for serving the pollo forte, reread the third sentence of this story. You don’t have to eat it outside under the sun, but you’ll be very happy if you do.