If you can’t stand the heat in the kitchen – or outside, for that matter – cold chicken salad provides a summertime supper solution.
But instead of baking, poaching or boiling a whole chicken or chicken parts and heating up the kitchen, start with a roasted chicken from the supermarket.
While that shortcut might dismay old-fashioned chicken-salad purists, it cuts the amount of preparation time and it helps you keep your cool in the kitchen.
“I have no problem with shortcuts,” says cooking teacher Barbara Lauterbach, author of “Chicken Salad: Fifty Favorite Recipes” (2003 Chronicle, $18.95). “The more I teach people, the more people tell me they don’t have enough time to cook.”
But that convenience can have a cost. While uncooked chickens cost 89 cents a pound and up, that same bird roasted and ready-to- go in the same supermarket’s deli can cost nearly double that amount. Keep an eye out for sales and promotions and you might find three roasted chickens for $10.
A roasted or rotisserie chicken works well in most chicken salad recipes. Because the chickens are marinated and sometimes injected with seasoned marinades before cooking, the chicken meat generally is higher in calories than a standard roasted chicken, about 250 to 325 calories for a 4-ounce serving, compared to 200 calories for plain roasted chicken.
If you’re using a roasted whole chicken, make sure to remove the skin, Lauterbach advises. And don’t forget to use the dark meat.
“The dark meat has wonderfully rich flavor,” she says. “Chop up those thighs and legs – they’re delicious.”
If you’re using deli chicken breast, ask the person behind the counter to slice it thick, about two slabs per pound, so you can cube it easily.
Despite the “salad” in its title, chicken salad is not diet food. It is comfort food and has been for a long time.
“Better Homes and Gardens Golden Treasury of Cookbooks” cites reports and diaries of revolutionary leaders meeting with George Washington in 1775 at a popular restaurant-inn in Williamsburg, Va. The favorite topic of conversation was politics, and the favorite food item on the menu was chicken salad served on blue-and-white Delft china plates.
“It’s been with us forever. It’s something you can depend on,” Lauterbach says.
The colonial-era chicken salad contained eggs, celery and chopped chicken held together with a boiled dressing. The salad reportedly was served in lettuce cups on the plates.
The cookbook states that main-dish salads came into prominence in the United States in the 1950s. Hostesses started using them for luncheons and parties because they could be made ahead of time.
In recent years, chicken salads have reflected ethnic cuisine influences including Indian, Southwest, Caribbean and Oriental. The variety of ingredients combined with chopped chicken now includes beans, corn kernels, chunks of apple, pineapple, grapes, coconut, nuts, mint, ginger, fennel, noodles and more.
“Everyone is discovering more and more things to do with mango,” Lauterbach says, citing her Citrus Poppyseed Chicken Salad as evidence. “Mango and chicken go well together; it’s pretty and you can get it year-round.”
And, she said, the salad is not dressed with fat-laden mayo; instead grated onion and mustard keep the poppyseed dressing from being overly sweet.
Lauterbach suggests tiny red potatoes or tomato slices, crusty bread and a nice glass of wine as the perfect accompaniments for chicken salad.
“I like to get a lot of color on the plate; yellow squash, roasted beets…”
Throughout its evolution, chicken salad remains a cool delight. Taste one of these renditions, and you’ll agree.
GRAPHIC: Tips for tasty chicken salad
– Skin and carefully debone chicken while chicken is still warm, if possible.