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Monday, August 27, 2007

The Great Chicken Breast Boycott

There was a time in the early 90s, when I felt compelled to make a stand against the ubiquitous “boneless, skinless” chicken breast. Chicken breasts were inescapable. Their low-fatness had been revealed to the world and the nation was clutching at this “healthy” ingredient like a life preserver. There was nowhere to hide from the rubbery tasteless stuff that had taken over. It was a staple at large weddings and charity events, restaurants featured countless variations on the “grilled chicken sandwich” and all the airlines in the land had a pathetic chicken pasta dish on offer. Grocery store meat departments made up marinated chicken kabobs, the chicken fajitas craze came and went and who knows how many dinner parties featured chicken-cloaked-in-some-sort-of-sauce.

I decided I had eaten my lifetime’s quota of chicken breasts, and I was done.

Time passed and with the exception of an occasional wedding or fundraiser, I successfully managed to avoid the boneless, skinless chicken breast. It was a nice respite.

Then on a hot summer day a few years ago, I simply had a craving for an old-fashioned chicken salad. The kind with cool, green grapes, maybe a little celery and some toasted nuts. An old memory tickled the back of my brain.

Years ago, when I was working at a law firm in Boston (see me in my little suit, floppy silk bow tie and running shoes for walking to the T?), my office mate raved about a chicken salad recipe. She was an excellent cook and I remember being impressed by her tales of preparing entire dinner parties from the Silver Palate cookbooks. So many exotic ingredients! Crème fraiche, sorrel, caviar…yikes! It was the 80s, people! Sensing my culinary inexperience, one day she brought in a cookbook just for me – The Open House Cookbook. The author, Sarah Leah Chase, was a contributor to one of the SP books, and also ran a small food shop on Nantucket…Que Sera Sarah. There were no glossy, styled photos on heavy paper. It was simply illustrated with small pen & ink drawings, but as I flipped through it I was hooked. I wanted to make EVERYTHING in it! (And, since that day, I think I have.)

That day, my office mate suggested starting with the chicken salad. (This was pre-Boycott, of course…) There were several variations listed, but what made the book worth its weight in gold, was the poached chicken used as a foundation for all the salads. You pile the ingredients into a pot, bring to a boil, turn off and set aside for several hours to cool. The slow cooking of the residual heat keeps the chicken incredibly moist and allows you to go about your business for the afternoon or day and then make up the salad when you’re ready.

Now, I swear to you, I am not a slacker. It’s just that when I come across a recipe that provides incredibly delicious results with minimal effort I find it difficult to contain my glee. There are few things that make me happier than making something wonderful by barely lifting a finger. This poached chicken method is the real deal. In fact, when I started thinking about doing this blog, the chicken salad recipe was mainly what I wanted to share.

Let the Poached Chicken be your canvas. I'll list several variations below, including the Classic Chicken Salad, but I really feel this can be endlessly adapted.

So here it is…the recipe that ended The Great Chicken Breast Boycott. Maybe it was discovering kosher chicken…maybe it was just giving the taste buds a vacation. I’m not really sure what made me abandon the boycott. It’s just hard to hate chicken breasts when you’ve got a recipe like this. (The variation in the picture is my version of Chinese Chicken Salad--I know...SO 90's!!)

Master Poaching Recipe
adapted from The Open-House Cookbook
(for 4-6 servings)

Two sets (four single) boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1 rib celery, cut into thirds
1 large carrot, cut into thirds
small onion, or a whole large shallot, halved
4-6 stems of flat-leaf parsley
1 T. whole peppercorns
splash of vermouth, or dry white wine

Place everything in a large saucepan or pot and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil, turn off the heat, cover and leave on the burner for several hours or until cool.
Drain and chop or shred the chicken for salad.

Here are some variations...add or subtract ingredients as you like:

Classic Chicken Salad
4 ribs celery, coarsely chopped
1 1/2 cups seedless green grapes, cut in half
2 T. chives, chopped
1 cup toasted walnuts, chopped (almond slivers work well here too)
1 cup (or less) mayonnaise
Salt & pepper to taste

Toss grapes, celery, nuts and chives with chicken. Mix in the mayonnaise 1/3 cup at a time -- depending on how moist you like your salad, you may not need the full cup.
Season with salt & pepper.

Curried Chicken Salad
4 ribs celery, chopped
2 Granny Smith apples, cored and cut into chunks
3/4 cup golden raisins
1 cup dry white wine
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 tablespoons ground gingner
2 to 3 tablespoons curry powder
1 cup mayonnaise

Toss the celery and apples with the chicken.
Place the raisins and wine in a small saucepan over medium-high heat and simmer for 3-4 minutes. Add the raisins and the liquid to the chicken and toss to combine.
Add the lime juice, ginger and curry powder and toss again. Slowly add the mayonnaise 1/3 cup at a time.
Salt to taste.

Italian Chicken Salad
1 green or red bell pepper, chopped
1 1/2 cup cherry or grape tomatoes, sliced in half
1/2 cup chopped fresh basil
1/2 cup toasted pine nuts
artichoke hearts, chopped, optional
1 zucchini, chopped

1/2 cup pesto sauce (more often than not, I will use the stuff out of a jar here)
1 cup mayonnaise

Toss the bell pepper, tomatoes, zucchini and/or artichokes and basil with the chicken. Whisk pesto into the mayonnaise and add to the chicken mixture. Sprinkle with pine nuts and salt and pepper to taste.

Chinese Chicken Salad
1 green or red bell pepper, chopped
1 cup snow peas, whole or sliced
1 cup thinly sliced red cabbage
2-3 scallions, chopped
1/2 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
1/2 cup bean sprouts
1/2 cup roasted peanuts
1/2 cup peanut butter
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 teaspoons sesame oil
1 cup mayonnaise

In a blender, combine the peanut butter, soy sauce, sesame oil and mayonnaise. Toss the bell pepper, snow peas, cabbage, cilantro and bean sprouts with the chicken. Add mayonnaise mixture and combine. Sprinkle with peanuts.

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