Sunday, April 23, 2006

Sunday Potluck Chicken Salad

As I am sure you're all aware, one of the great scandals of the American educational system is that there are no institutions of higher learning devoted to the study of the interplay of cuisine and theology. The Culinary Institute of America is as sadly devoid of religious studies classes as is the Yale Divinity School devoid of restaurant internships. We here at anapestic are 100% behind the separation of church and state, but the idea that one can feed the body without feeding the soul (or vice versa) is ridiculous on its face, and the separation of church and kitchen has no merit. (It is true, for those keeping score, that I am officially an atheist, which may make the preceding paragraph appear somewhat inconsistent with my world view, but I assure you that there is a perfectly good explanation that makes the whole thing sensible, and I intend to lay it out for you as soon as I make it up.)

As soon as this unfortunate oversight has been set right (and I can see high ranking chefs and clerics all over the country smacking themselves in their collective forehead and asking themselves how they could have failed to realize something so fundamental) I expect that a popular topic for students of comparative religion and cuisine will be the impact of regional and denominational differences on the church potluck.

Surely, to take but one example, a Midwestern Lutheran potluck is nothing at all like a DC metro area Unitarian Universalist potluck. I have, obviously, extremely limited experience with the former, but I have been to enough of the latter to draw some conclusions.

Most obviously, there seems to be a correlation between UU inclusiveness and a fear of meat. Wherever you have a UU congregation of even moderate size, you will have a few vegetarians, and you will have a much larger group of people who are afraid either that they will offend the vegetarians if they bring meat or that the vegetarians will have nothing to eat if they don't provide it. Consequently, when you go to a UU potluck, you will see a positively dizzying array of salads and relatively few entrees (though someone who forgot about the potluck will always have rushed out at the end of the morning service to purchase a bucket of chicken from KFC).

In my experience, vegetarian UUs have no problems whatsoever with anyone else eating meat. And because they don't eat meat, they will always have brought something that they can and want to eat. The carnivores, by contrast, will find relatively few choices, and those choices will be gone before half of the line has moved by the food tables.

I noted this situation fairly on in my UU experience, and I have done what I could to rectify it. I have made meatloaves that served forty (surprisingly easy to do if one buys one's ground beef from Costco). I once made a triple recipe of Julia Child's beef paupiettes recipe, ending up with about 50 paupiettes/rouladen (depending on your linguistic preferences). I have mixed horseradish with cream cheese, spread it on thinly sliced roast beef, and wrapped the beef around marinated asparagus spears. I think I made sixty of those. There's never any of any of the meat-based dishes left over.

There was a potluck today at church, but I didn't find out about it until yesterday afternoon, so I wanted to make something easy. V. and I had tickets to the symphony last night, so I also didn't have a lot of time to spend on it. I decided on chicken salad: everyone likes it, it's easy to put together, and it's easy to do in large quantities.

I think that the best way to make this chicken salad is to prepare all the components the night before, refrigerate them (the ones that need to be refrigerated, that is) separately, and combine everything in the morning before church. Chicken salad is, of course, highly customizable. I was going for simplicity and ease of preparation, but if you want to cut up some red bell peppers and add them, by all means have at it. If you want to substitute pine nuts or peanuts or cashews for the pistachios, you have every right to do so. If you want to increase the quantity of raisins by half or add some seedless red grapes, you have my blessing.

Sunday Potluck Chicken Salad

5 lbs. boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1 t. salt
10 peppercorns
1 green cardamom pod

1 cup pistachios

1 cup golden raisins

1 head broccoli

1 T. olive oil
1/2 t. fennel seed
1/2 t. mustard seed
1/2 t. coriander seed
1 t. ground cumin
1 t. smoked paprika
1/4 t. ground turmeric
2 cups mayonnaise
1 T. dijon mustard

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

In a wide skillet or electric skillet, put a quart of water. Add the salt, peppercorns, and cardamom. Bring to a boil. Turn down the heat, slide the chicken breasts into the water, cover, and maintain at a simmer for half an hour. Turn off the heat and let the water and chicken breasts cool. Drain and dice the chicken breasts. Cover and refrigerate.

Toast the pistachios for six minutes at 325. Remove from the oven, cool, and reserve.

Bring a saucepan of salted water to the boil.

Cut the florets off the broccoli stalk and cut or break the florets into very small pieces. Peel the broccoli stalk and cut it into about a one-third inch dice. Parboil the broccoli for two minutes. Drain, run under cold water to stop the cooking, drain again and dry the broccoli pieces. Cover and refrigerate.

In a small skillet, heat the olive oil. Add the whole seeds and cook until fragrant. Strain out the seeds, add the grind spices, and cook until the ground spices are fragrant. Turn off heat and let cool slightly.

Put the mayonnaise in a bowl and whisk in the spiced oil. Taste and add additional seasonings as necessary. Cover and refrigerate.

When all the components (except the pistachios and the raisins) are thoroughly chilled, put the chicken, broccoli, pistachios, and raisins in a large bowl. Pour on the dressing, and toss very well to combine.

I always think that broccoli stalks are underused and that they provide a very nice crunch in this sort of salad (texture of celery; flavor of broccoli!), but if you can't be bothered to spend forty-five seconds taking the peel off a broccoli stalk with a vegetable peeler, then I suppose you can just use the florets. Make sure that they're small florets, though. And no cheating on the parboiling. You may not use raw broccoli, and you may not overcook the broccoli. Two minutes in the hot water (it will just have come back to the boil when the time is up), then immediately into the colander and then into cold water. You don't want either raw broccoli or cooked broccoli here.

How large or small you dice your chicken is an intensely personal choice. I tend to make one big cut parallel to the cutting board to divide the chicken breast into two thinner pieces and then to dice the pieces into about a 3/4" dice, but smaller dice is also very nice, especially if you are considering stuffing something with the chicken salad or making sandwiches.

Be careful when you toast the pistachios. They burn relatively easily.

An electric skillet, if you have one, is really a great help here. I was able to fit five massive chicken breasts in V.'s, and it keeps the water just below the boil very well. If the water boils after you put the breasts in it, you risk rubberiness. If you're very ambitious, you can also quarter a medium onion and put it in the poaching water and then when you're done poaching, you can boil the water down by about half to make a nice broth. I did that, but I reduced it a bit farther than that, and I haven't had a chance to taste the broth yet. I'm thinking about using it for the base of a chick pea vicchysoise. I have never had such a soup, but I saw it on one of the menus that we stopped and read while we were walking around Manhattan, and it sounds like an inspired idea.

This salad was a huge hit at today's potluck. A. asked me to make another batch so that she could take some for lunch tomorrow. I have taken her request under advisement.


Anonymous redfox said...

I personally like the stalks of broccoli far more than the florets, to the point that I always very carefully choose the broccoli with the longest, girthiest stalks and the most pin-headed heads. (I promise, by the way, that by "broccoli" here I mean "broccoli" and nothing else.)

7:23 PM  
Anonymous lindy said...

With respect to food and religion, as a person brought up in the complete absence of organized religion, happy to be unaffiliated, and sharing your church/state views, I've got to say that there is a definite connection here which I also see.
As to broccoli, I'd have to agree with the redfox. In fact, I'd go one further and say the top bits, while picturesque and tree-like, have a nasty texture.

12:59 AM  

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