The first time I was served a Southern luncheon plate, my mind froze, unable to make sense of what was in front of me. Why was a mound of chicken salad next to a mound of red Jell-O? What was their relationship to the dollop of mayonnaise and celery sticks? How did cheese straws fit in?
I was in the presence of a new and wonderful meal: luncheon. Today, most Americans eat lunch, if anything, at midday, and that is as likely to be a green juice or a protein bar as a meal.
Still, in certain circles at certain times — most notably, a gathering of women in the American South — nothing but a sit-down luncheon will do. And the inevitable centerpiece of a luncheon is, was and forever shall be chicken salad.
“What else could you possibly serve to ladies?” said Nathalie Dupree, the author of “Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking,” only partly joking.
Chicken salad — now most often a tired-looking deli special, best hidden between slices of bread — has a proud history when served elegantly: in an iced, lettuce-lined coupe; molded into a ring; or scooped into a thin, crisp toast cup, as it has been since 1965 at the Swan Coach House in Atlanta.
It was often the centerpiece of a special-occasion meal when Dupree was a little girl, she said, reserved for Sundays, socials and summer parties. “Summer was when the hens stopped laying and had to be killed off,” she said.
There is everyday Southern lunch chicken salad, mixed very smooth with pickle relish, to eat on crackers or in a sandwich. And there is luncheon chicken salad, chunky and complicated with things like slivered almonds or minced pineapple or mango chutney or scallions. (Recipes for Bridesmaid’s Chicken Salad, popular in Junior League cookbooks, have all of the above.)
This recipe is the best of both. Whether eaten with a fork or in a sandwich, when made with care and good ingredients, chicken salad has a delicious dignity.
The base for good chicken salad is, of course, good chicken. Many recipes suggest starting with a rotisserie chicken.
I suggest that a rotisserie chicken is a recipe for disaster. Unless perfectly cooked and freshly shredded, roast chicken is almost always too dry and stringy for salad. And in any case, dark meat has no place in the dish. A whole breast left over from a really nicely roasted chicken is fine.
What lifts chicken salad up is the pure, clean texture of breast meat — one of the very few really good uses for this almost entirely flavorless cut. Poaching it is the only way to get the right texture.
But poaching is not as easy as it should be. On today’s high-BTU stoves, it is often impossible to keep a pot of water at a low simmer — and if the water boils, the meat contracts and stiffens and is ruined.
To counter this, some years ago I adopted a Chinese method for poaching that is foolproof, low maintenance and ideal for summer cooking. All it requires is a heavy pot — enameled or plain cast-iron is ideal — and a bit of nerve.
This is because you do not cook the chicken. Instead, you slip it into boiling water, turn off the heat and then walk away for at least two hours. (This part is best done in the relative cool of the morning kitchen.)
Over time, the gentle but steady residual heat cooks the chicken through, giving it a texture the California chef and interpreter of Chinese cuisine Barbara Tropp called “plush” — perfect for chicken salad. (It turns out that the Southern-cooking doyenne Edna Lewis poached her chicken in much the same way.)
Other cooks build plushiness in other ways. Dupree, and many other Southern cooks, hold that the meat should be hand-shredded from the bone, and never touched by a knife.
Kenny Shopsin of Shopsin’s on the Lower East Side, a purist who puts nothing but chicken and mayonnaise in chicken salad, says that the breast-meat chunks should be hand-massaged “until they are frayed on the edges and semisoft in the center,” the better to absorb more mayonnaise. Neat and firm cubes are not preferred; the chicken should have a natural feel.
Mayonnaise and summer were long considered incompatible because traditional homemade mayonnaise contains raw egg yolk, a hospitable environment for bacteria like salmonella and E. coli.
But commercial mayonnaise, because it lacks raw egg and is spiked with acidic ingredients like vinegar and citric acid, actually slows the growth of bacteria. (This was widely reported after a 2008 study and confirmed by the FDA in 2014.) In addition to acid, if there are preservatives in the mayonnaise, so much the better for the buffet.
But preservatives and acids are not better for the taste of your chicken salad.
The dish is infinitely improved with homemade mayonnaise, easy to make with a food processor and even easier to make with a hand blender. For safety, always serve chicken salad with homemade mayonnaise well chilled; it (and any other mayonnaise-bound salad) tastes better that way anyway.
Duke’s mayonnaise, which is free of sweeteners and tangier than most factory versions, is my favorite, but it is only available in stores in the Southern states. (It can also be ordered online.) I like to add crème fraîche or sour cream for chicken salad, which fluffs the texture of the dressing; mayonnaise alone can be greasy.
There is almost no ingredient that has not been stirred into chicken salad by some adventurous cook. Many people like a sweet element, like fresh grapes or dried fruit; some lean toward sour, with chopped pickles and mustard. All these variations can be spun on the basic combination of poached chicken and creamy dressing.
To me, celery, black pepper and onion (or scallion) are nonnegotiable. Nuts, toasted and coarsely chopped, provide crunch and flavor. Herbs are not traditional, but tarragon, a natural partner for chicken, makes it fresh and elegant. (If you are suspicious of fresh tarragon, trust the authors of the Silver Palate cookbooks and Ina Garten, who taught me to put it in chicken salad.)
This chicken salad makes a very fine sandwich for lunch. But scooped into a lettuce leaf on a chilled plate on a hot summer day, with sliced tomatoes and radishes on the side, it makes a perfect luncheon. Even if it happens to be served at dinnertime.
Best chicken salad
Yield: 4 servings; total time: 20 minutes, plus 2 hours’ resting and 4 hours’ chilling
About 4 pounds bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts
2 scallions, cut into thirds
1/4 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 lemon, halved
2/3 cup mayonnaise, preferably Hellmann’s, Best Foods or homemade
1/4 cup sour cream or crème fraîche, more to taste
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard or 1 teaspoon brine from a jar of pickles, optional
2 or 3 pale green celery ribs, cut into medium (1/4-inch) dice
1/2 cup minced onion or finely sliced scallion, optional
1/2 cup walnut or pecan halves, broken into bite-size pieces
3 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon, parsley, or chives, plus extra for garnish
Choose a heavy pot or Dutch oven with a tightfitting lid. It should be large enough to hold the chicken snugly, but not much bigger. Fill pot about 2/3 full with cold water, but don’t put the chicken in yet. Boil some extra water in a teakettle.
Add scallions and peppercorns to water, cover and bring to a rolling boil. Turn off heat and slip chicken pieces into the hot water. If needed, add boiling water from the kettle to cover chicken with water by 2 inches. Replace the lid and let chicken rest in the hot water for about 2 hours. Do not turn the flame back on: The pot will retain enough heat to cook chicken thoroughly and safely. (To test, cut into 1 piece of chicken and check the meat near the bone. If it is still pink, return the pot to low heat, bring the water to a simmer and simmer 10 minutes more.)
Lift chicken out of the pot. Remove and discard bones, skin and fat. Pat the meat dry with paper towels, then cut or shred into small bite-size pieces and transfer to a bowl. (Meanwhile, simmer cooking liquid until tasty, strain and refrigerate or freeze to use as chicken stock.)
In a bowl, whisk together juice of 1/2 lemon, mayonnaise and sour cream. If using, whisk in mustard or brine. Taste and adjust the seasonings and thickness to your liking. Pour over chicken, scraping the bowl clean with a rubber spatula.
Add celery, onion if using, nuts, herbs and salt and pepper. Toss gently but thoroughly. Refrigerate, covered, at least 4 hours. Taste and add salt and pepper as needed. Sprinkle with herbs before serving.