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Bird by bird

(article, Keri Fisher)

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When I was a kid, chicken salad was low on the sandwich totem pole. It always seemed more afterthought than real food: all the leftover bits of chicken (including, invariably, some unidentifiable chewy parts), smothered in mayonnaise and garnished with the occasional speck of celery. Tuna salad was more of a star in my circle, even though “tuna fish” is about as recognizable to a child as cartilaginous chicken pieces.


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But start with the right ingredients, and chicken salad can be so much more. Though leftovers can be used to make an inventive and delicious chicken salad, starting from scratch gives you control over the ingredients each step of the way and allows for the specific flavor combinations you want. 

The same roasted chicken that graces my family table at least once a week during the colder months is perfect for summer dinners as well — dinners of chicken salad. Since no one wants to turn on the oven when the mercury crawls above the 90-degree mark, chicken salads are a great option. I usually roast the chicken either before the sun comes up — when I’m up with my 1-year-old at 6 a.m., for example — or after it goes down. Roasted chicken will keep in the refrigerator for about three days, which gives me plenty of time to make the salad. 

[%image curried float=left width=400 credit="Photo © Culinate" caption="Curried chicken salad is a hot-weather classic."]

I prefer white meat in my chicken salad, though dark meat can be used as well; I find the white slightly more meaty and mild than the dark, allowing the other ingredients to shine. And since chicken in general is so mild, I like to pair it with strong-flavored ingredients in salads. 

My favorite chicken salad is a modern classic: curried chicken salad with apples and raisins. I add celery for added crunch (and a nod toward the chicken salads of yesteryear) and some lime juice for tang. The raisins add a nice chew and, paired with the apples, offer a sweetness that kids like. Mayo makes an appearance in this salad, but only in a supporting role; the curry flavors take center stage and the mayo gilds, rather than gluts, the other ingredients. 

Another favorite is Thai chicken salad, which is slightly sweet, slightly sour, and as spicy as you want it to be (in my house, that’s pretty spicy). For this salad I like to shred the chicken by hand, rather than chop it with a knife, so it blends nicely with the shredded cabbage, carrots, and red peppers. The dressing features the holy trinity of Thai flavors — sour, sweet, and spicy — in the form of lime juice, fish sauce, sugar, and chile peppers. 

[%image feature-image float=right width=400 credit="Photo © Culinate" caption="Spice up summer with a Thai-style chicken salad."]

Barbecued chicken salad is a newbie in our house, but it’s already a favorite with the kids and grown-ups, who love the combination of tangy barbecue sauce and sweet corn and red peppers. We like this one on soft hamburger buns with a crunchy leaf of iceberg lettuce (another nod to yesteryear). This is also my way to claim to have a “barbecue” without having to light the charcoal. After all, for kids, the mere fact of eating outside makes it a barbecue, right?

These salads are all so versatile; I serve them over a bed of mesclun, rolled inside a whole-wheat tortilla, or spread on a rye crisp. Sometimes I make just one to keep in the fridge for a quick sandwich during the week; other times I make all three for a chicken-salad sampler dinner. And, of course, I’ve been known to eat them right out of the container, standing in front of the open refrigerator. After all, at 6 a.m., nobody’s looking but my 1-year-old. And he’s not talking. 

p(bio). Cookbook author Keri Fisher (One Cake, One Hundred Desserts) has written for Saveur, Gastronomica, and Cook's Illustrated. She lives outside Philadelphia with her sister, her husband, and her three children, and keeps a blog about living in a communal household.

Also on Culinate: Matthew Card's article on spatchcocked chickens.

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