Thursday, September 07, 2006

September 6th Chicken Salad

I must confess that I don't really follow the cookbook world these days. If Lindy raves sufficiently about a cookbook, I will often order it, read it, and cook something from it, but the days when I read cookbook reviews and bought a lot of cookbooks have left me with enough cookbooks to keep my busy pretty much forever, so if I buy something these days, it's more likely than not to be something old that's been rediscovered and reissued or something that I can't pass up at a used book sale. Like that hardcover Larousse Gastronomique in nearly pristine condition that I got for two dollars three years ago, which may very well have been my best culinary buy ever, though the two Le Creuset white au gratins that I got for $20 might have been even more impressive since I found them at a consignment store where the kitchenware is (almost) universally overpriced.

Anyway. My point is that I don't know a lot about what's going on in the cookbook publishing world these days, but ten or so years back, there was an absolute epidemic of books entitled 365 Ways to Cook [insert food here], the idea being that if you wanted to have chicken (for example, because that's the only book of its type that I was ever foolish enough to purchase) every night of the year, you could do so and have a different dish each night. I suppose that after the year was up, you either repeated (one envisions entire families looking forward to that really great chicken casserole that they get every March 3rd; one further envisions a mock chicken dish on April 1st, but one is almost certainly deluded) or moved onto another food for the next year, though it was never anything really cool like 365 Ways to Cook Truffles or 365 Ways to Cook Plain Boiled Rice. Perhaps there was some sort of Chinese zodiac tie-in so that you'd get 365 Ways to Cook Boar in the Year of the Boar, though one suspects that cultural biases, environmental concerns, and scarcity would have made the years of the dog, tiger, and dragon (respectively) less than entirely workable.

I don't know what people were expected to do on February 29th. Eat out, perhaps, but you have to imagine that the prospect of not having your assigned chicken, beef, or pork dish would have elicited so much anxiety that adherents would have simply ended up fasting.

Anyway. I love plenty of foods enough to eat them 365 different ways, and I don't love any food so much that I could eat it every day for a year, but if some publisher were foolish enough to ask me to write a 365 ways book, I'd want to write it about chicken salad. When presented with a really good chicken salad, I have been known to eat it with embarrassing (to my fellow diners that is; it seems foolish to me to be embarrassed about enjoying one's food so much that one's companions cannot tell whether they are witnessing gluttony or lust) glee. And chicken salad is, effectively, infinitely versatile. There is a good chance that I could gather half of the 365 recipes just by checking the lunch menus of the many, many restaurants in Bethesda, where I work. And I could certainly get the rest from various and delightful junior league-style cookbooks at the local used book store. (Don't worry: I would not pass these recipes off as my own. I would give credit where it was due, test the recipes, and develop my own completely inscrutable rating system: "While the flavor is good overall, I find the texture to be somewhat lacking in diversity. Worth a try for a box lunch. I give it two-and-a-half capons.")

This is the chicken salad that I brought for lunch today. I made it yesterday, but it is really better the next day when the flavors have had a chance to develop and intertwine. I did not take a picture of it because it is seriously ugly: adding a couple of tablespoons of balsamic vinegar to your mayo really helps the flavor, but dark tan is really not an attractive color for a salad. Alas, I was in something of a hurry to finish before the start of Project Runway (go, Laura!) last night, so I didn't have time to search for the white balsamic vinegar, which I may have already finished, anyway. I named it after the date that I made it rather than the date on which I first planned to have it for lunch. 9-6 is the American convention for September 6th. If you're in Europe, you should invert the digits, which is all to the good: it's high time that gluttony and lust were unified.

9-6 Chicken Salad

3 cups cubed cooked chicken breast
4 ounces blue cheese
1 apple
A squeeze of lemon juice
1 stalk celery
1 cup toasted walnut halves
3/4 cup mayonnaise
1 rounded tsp. dijon mustard
2 T. balsamic vinegar
2 T. honey

Finely dice or crumble the blue cheese. Core but do not peel the apple, and cut it into fine dice. Toss the diced apple with the lemon juice. Finely dice the celery. Coarsely chop the walnut halves. Combine the chicken, blue cheese, apple, celery, and walnuts in a bowl.

In another bowl, combine the remaining ingredients. Whisk together until well blended.

Put as much of the dressing as you like on the solid ingredients. Stir to combine. Refrigerate.

The blue cheese that I used was gorgonzola bel gioso that I got from Costco. I assume that "bel gioso" is Italian for "without conviction." Don't get me wrong: it's a perfectly delicious cheese. It's great on bread, and it goes very well in the salad, but when I was first introduced to gorgonzola twenty years ago, I had something very, very different: an assertive, almost angry, cheese that was creamy where bel gioso is crumbly. My then-roommate R.'s mother used to say that gorgonzola was the culinary equivalent of an onomatopoeia because when you tasted it, you could not help exclaiming "gorgonzola!" It was a cheese that wouldn't be ignored. I should really track down some of that gorgonzola, though it would be disastrous in this particular salad.

Given what I was going for with this salad, I felt it important to cut everything in fairly small pieces, so the chicken is cut much more finely than in most of my chicken salads. Coarsely chopping the walnut halves gives mostly pieces that are about the same size. I believe that this salad would be equally good either on a bed of greens or in a sandwich, but I'm having it straight up for lunch.

Some raisins or currants and/or pineapple would be a happy addition here, though of course, then it would look a lot like the 10 February chicken salad, and I'm sure that my notional editor wouldn't be pleased about that.

[Update: I originally forgot to mention that the walnut halves were toasted before they were chopped. Appropriately enough, I toast my walnuts two or three cups at a time in our toaster oven. I set it at 325 degrees, and it usually takes about fifteen minutes. Your salad will be much tastier and crunchier if you toast the walnuts. As SpongeBob would say: don't forget it!]


Anonymous Jenine said...

So charming and wordy -- I enjoy reading your posts. The description of an 'angry cheese' is making me snort. It also makes me think of some whiffy raclette I bought with some friends way back when. They were complaining about the reek but I assured them that there are far stinkier cheeses in France.

I look forward to making this chicken salad recipe soon. Do you tend to buy just chicken breasts or the whole bird? I've been buying a lot of thighs lately to save money, and I'm perfectly happy with the results in crock pot recipes for example.

8:42 AM  
Blogger anapestic said...

I usually buy the breasts at Costco, where they're nicely vacuum packed. The package contains twelve boneless breasts, divided into six two-breast pouches. Each pouch is individually sealed, and the whole thing is perforated so that you can tear off one or more pouches at a time, though I tend to use scissors.

V. tends to roast a whole chicken about once a fortnight, but it's often on a night when the girls are over, and it's not usually a very large chicken, so there isn't a lot left over.

Chicken thighs generally have more fat and flavor than chicken breasts. A boneless breast is fairly versatile for a quick dinner, and I prefer it for chicken salad, but for crockpot recipes, I definitely think that you're better off with the thighs. V.'s other main chicken dinner is roasted thighs. He does this very simply, topping the thighs with fresh sage leaves from the garden. The sage gets crispy while it's in the oven, and if he leaves the table to get something else out of the kitchen, I pick all the leaves off the thighs and eat them before he sits back down.

9:06 AM  
Anonymous lindy said...

This Waldorfian chicken salad looks like a five capon lunch to me. May I suggest- and you can check it out as soon as they come along this season- Honeycrisp apples are the best salad apples I know.

6:48 AM  

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