Chicken salad always seems to be the most impossibly chic and yet dated thing to eat on a warm day. I imagine monochromatically-dressed ladies sitting daintily at their Upper East Side luncheons, nibbling discreetly from heavy china plates and sipping iced tea from tall, thin glasses. I don't know where I got the impression that chicken salad was a very rich woman's version of diet food, but with Amanda Hesser's appealing insistence that chicken salad could be something much better, I'm glad to have been proven wrong.
Ben and I spent the weekend on our bikes - cycling from downtown to uptown and back, whizzing through some sections of Central Park, and huffing and puffing our (er, my) way through others. The fresh air and exercise was like manna to our office-drone bodies - being bone-tired after days like that is the best kind of tired. But when the time came for dinner, I couldn't bear to be too close to the stove. Luckily for both of us, I found respite in a recipe for chicken salad (I suppose, technically, it's more a salade composee than the more plebeian-sounding chicken salad that conjures up visions of highway rest-stops and squishy bread - at least for me) that Amanda wrote about to pair with Valpolicella.
You drop a few pieces of raw chicken into simmering water that's been flavored with salt and garlic. While the chicken poaches gently, you throw together a salad of lettuce, radishes, green beans and mint. The still-warm, sliced chicken is placed on top of the greens, and the whole thing is dressed with a tangy, well-flavored dressing that has hints of both France and the Middle East in its composition. I had to amend our version of the recipe (see below) due to supermarket constraints, but it still turned out to be a thoroughly delicious and restorative meal.
I loved the dressing: Dijon mustard, vinegar, orange juice for sweetness, pepper and cumin for heat and warmth, chopped tarragon for earthy elegance, and yogurt to round everything out into a mellow yet vibrant sauce. The crunch of the radishes and romaine lettuce was so refreshing after a hot day outside (fresh mint leaves would have really dotted the i) and the just-cooled chicken was delicious in its barely-clad state. We munched our way silently through the salad - far too exhausted to talk about anything else but the good nourishment in front of us. This was temple food, indeed.
You would be well-served to reserve some of the (undressed) lettuce and radishes, a spoonful or two of dressing and a piece of chicken, because the next day you could slice open a piece of baguette and create a little sandwich - almost Banh-Mi-like - of cold chicken, greens and sauce. It's a pretty fabulous lunch - even for a leftover-shunning creature like me. This recipe is getting laminated for posterity.
Warm Chicken Salad
1 clove garlic
4 chicken thighs and 2 chicken breasts, skin-on (I bought skinless by accident)
2 teaspoons red-wine vinegar (I used Sherry vinegar)
3 tablespoons orange juice
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
3 teaspoons chopped tarragon
1 teaspoon ground cumin (I used just a tiny pinch, since cumin overwhelms me)
Pinch Aleppo pepper (or, if you have none, cayenne)
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup whole milk yogurt (I used 2% Liberte)
1 romaine heart in 2-inch pieces
2 handfuls of red-leaf lettuce (I left this out)
20 mint leaves (left out because d'Agostino's didn't have any... I was too tired to go to Whole Foods)
8 icicle radishes, thinly sliced
1/2 pound green beans, blanched (I used frozen, GASP, and they were fine)
1. Fill a large pan with water and season with salt. Add garlic; bring to boil. Place chicken in water and simmer gently until cooked through, 20 minutes. Transfer to plate.
2. In a small bowl, whisk together vinegar, orange juice, mustard, tarragon, cumin and pepper. Season with salt. Gradually whisk in olive oil until smooth, then whisk in yogurt.
3. In a large, shallow bowl, toss romaine, red leaf, mint, radishes and beans. Sprinkle with additional olive oil and toss once more. While chicken is warm, remove skin; cut breasts into 1/8-inch slices. Pull meat from thighs.
4. Arrange chicken over greens and spoon dressing on top. Serve.