I’m sorry if the words ‘chicken salad’ make you think of service station sandwiches or meals at slightly upmarket chain pubs circa ’99 that definitely involved bacon and a honey and mustard dressing. We’ve all been there. We’re all scarred.
Chicken salads are a thing of joy and great comfort and they’re not just for summer. Here are some points that I like to keep in mind when making one, in case you’re interested. This is, of course, just one style of chicken salad. There are many.
Buy the best quality chicken you can afford. Yeah, it sounds obvious and perhaps I shouldn’t even need to say it. Or, more accurately, I hope I don’t need to say it. Chicken welfare is something I get really wound up about and you should too if you give even one f*ck about where your food comes from or how the birds are treated. If you don’t, then you can jog on, quite honestly. Aside from the welfare issue, a higher quality bird will have a much better flavour and texture. You can’t polish a turd bird.
Work that dressing. It’s obvious that a dressing can make or break a salad but it’s incredible how many people shake a bit of lemon juice onto limp leaves as an afterthought. I was served a completely dry, undressed salad at a pop-up/supper club a few years ago, as a standalone course. Amazing.
I often go for a creamy dressing for chicken but I use yoghurt instead to keep things fresh and light, and I always add garlic, usually blanching or roasting it (with the chicken) to take the edge off and ensure that we can actually leave the house and speak to people afterwards.
Consider anchovies. Think of them as little spears of flavour that will give a mediocre dressing a kick up the backside (case in point = the Caesar). They also work well with chicken, so that’s handy.
Croutons. When you roast a good chicken you get loads of lovely fat and if you waste that then your operation is total clown shoes. I suggest taking some stale-ish sourdough bread, ripping it into pieces, tossing it with the chicken fat and whacking them in the oven for 10 minutes to crisp up.
Something pickled. You’re going to want some acidity in there and a nice way to do this is to make a quick pickle. For the recipe below I’ve used a mixture of sherry vinegar and sugar to quick-pickle sliced shallots while the chicken is in the oven. They’re great in sandwiches too.
Use robust greens. Do not use any limp ass greens like floppy lettuce or rustly baby spinach leaves. I’ve nothing against spinach – it’s one of my favourite vegetables in fact – but using it in a chicken salad makes me think of fried goats’ cheese with a circle of toast underneath, yet another casualty of the slightly-up-itself pub food era.
You want to use a lettuce with some decent crunch (Baby Gem, Cos) and consider adding another vegetable like Tenderstem broccoli (up there with spinach in my opinion) to bulk it out. If you ditch the lettuce then kale or cavolo nero would also work a treat.
Herbs. There’s the option here to use woody herbs like rosemary when you’re roasting the chicken and then soft herbs in the salad itself, or the dressing. I sometimes like to use whole bunches of tarragon as if they’re salad leaves, or just use a mixture – think parsley, chives and chervil (the latter is great if you can get it).
That’s it really – not complicated but yeah, a bit more effort than chucking everything in a bowl and mixing it about. A salad shouldn’t be punishment, an afterthought or a backup plan. A bit like a sandwich, come to think about it. Maybe I’ll write a book about salads?*
Chicken Salad with Anchovy Dressing and Chicken Fat Croutons
This serves 2
3 skin-on chicken thighs
9 garlic cloves, left whole and unpeeled
1 lemon, quartered
2 thick slices stale sourdough bread
Handful Tenderstem broccoli
Handful little gem leaves
2 shallots, sliced
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
1 tablespoon caster sugar
8 anchovy fillets
1 tablespoon grated Parmesan
2 tablespoons natural yoghurt
2 teaspoons olive oil
Preheat the oven to 180C
Place the chicken thighs in a roasting tray with the garlic, lemon and a good amount of salt and pepper and roast for 40 minutes (no need to add oil). If the skin isn’t brown and crisp, whack the heat up to 210 for 5 minutes to crisp it up.
Mix the shallots, sherry vinegar and sugar in a bowl. Give it a stir every now and then as the chicken is cooking.
Remove the chicken from the bone when cool enough to do so, shredding but keeping the skin and setting the fat aside for the croutons. Also set the garlic aside for the dressing.
Chop the slices of sourdough into big chunks, then toss with the chicken fat and return to the oven to crisp up. This will take around 10 minutes – give them a shake around halfway through.
Blanch the broccoli in boiling water for a minute, then drain.
To make the dressing, mush up the anchovies in a pestle and mortar, then squeeze the garlic in, add the Parmesan, yoghurt and olive oil. Give all this a really good stir until well mixed, then add some lemon juice to taste. Check the seasoning.
To serve, mix a couple of tablespoons of the dressing with the lettuce and broccoli and arrange between plates. Add the chicken, shallots and croutons on top. Serve, with extra dressing if you want it.