Had you put chicken salad in front of me 10 years ago, I would have have probably eaten enough bites so as not to hurt your feelings but I would have been longing for the robotic eating to end. Now? I love chicken salad, but really only if I make it. My "ah ha!" moment with chicken salad occurred about 3 years ago when Jason and I were vacationing on the North Shore of Kauai. There was (I hope it's still there) a quaint little cafe called Hanalei Cafe that was quite affordable and delicious, which is saying a lot if you have ever been to the islands. Anyhow, I ordered their chicken salad since I was willing to try whatever. It was AMAZING. Their salad had chunks of mango and chopped macadamia nuts in it and it was served in an avocado half and drizzled with a mango dressing...it was out of this world.
Longing for that taste, that memory, I found a Tarragon Chicken Salad in my Gourmet cookbook and thought I would give it a try. Boy, was I ever happy that I did. If ever there was an easy, delicious, adaptable recipe, it's this one. I've made it their way 100 times and then I've put my own spin on it the rest of the time.
Tarragon Chicken Salad:
Take the time to do the following! Cover 3 pounds of boneless, skinless chicken breast with 1/4 cup (you read right) of KOSHER salt and let it sit on the counter for about 15 minutes, turning the chicken once or twice. Rinse the chicken in cold water to wash the salt off. What you are left with is extremely flavorful chicken without it tasting salty...believe me.
Put the chicken in a pot of salted (about 1 Tablespoon to every 4 quarts of water) slightly simmering water and cook, uncovered, for about 6 minutes.
Turn the heat off.
Put a lid on the pot.
And let the chicken sit in the water for 10 minutes. Take the chicken out of the pot and let it cool for about 10 minutes...if you make extra, you can shred the extra amount for chicken salads, sandwiches, soups, pizza, etc and it will be the most flavorful chicken you've ever eaten.
Meanwhile, dice 1/2 red onion, finely chop 2 ribs of celery, rough chop 1 cup of toasted walnuts and cut 1 cup of grapes in halves. Set aside.
Cut the chicken in about 1/2 inch slices against the grain. See how juicy this chicken is? By the time I had taken this picture, the chicken had cooled for 1/2 an hour and it's STILL extremely juicy.
Then cube the chicken into whatever size you like. I tend to go for the chicken to be almost on the chunky side. You could even shred the chicken to make it more of a rustic-style salad.
You'll need tarragon vinegar next...this is the store-brand that I found. Tarragon tastes very similar to licorice. I'm usually not a fan of licorice but I like how the almost bittersweet flavor of the vinegar mingles with the rich mayo/sour cream sauce we'll make later and the sweetness of the grapes.
Put the chicken into a large bowl and pour about 1 1/2 teaspoon of tarragon vinegar over the chicken. You don't need much vinegar or else it will over-power the entire dish.
Add your onions, celery, walnuts and grapes to the chicken.
In a separate bowl (sorry no picture - I'm not that cool), mix 1/3 cup REAL mayonnaise (like Helmann's) and 1/3 cup sour cream. Stir in about 1 teaspoon and a half of dried tarragon. Then pour this over the chicken mixture.
Add about a 1/2 teaspoon of kosher salt and about 1/4 teaspoon of fresh ground pepper.
Stir all of this together.
Then serve it how ever you like it! I happened to have mixed baby greens on hand that needed to be eaten. I like the sharp, peppery flavor it adds to the chicken salad.
Tarragon Chicken Salad
Adapted from Gourmet Cookbook
3 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breast, trimmed of fat
1/4 cup kosher salt
1-1/2 tablespoons tarragon white-wine vinegar, or to taste
2 ribs celery, diced
1/2 red onion, small -diced
1 cup grapes, halved
1 cup walnuts, lightly toasted and coarse-chopped
1/3 cup mayonnaise
1/3 cup sour cream
1 1/2 teaspoons dried tarragon
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
Coat chicken with kosher salt in a bowl. Let stand at room temperature, turning once or twice, for 15 minutes. Rinse salt from chicken. Poach chicken in a 5- to 6-quart pot of barely simmering salted water (1 tablespoon salt for every 4 quarts water), uncovered, for 6 minutes. Remove from heat and let chicken stand in cooking liquid, covered, until just cooked through, 10-12 minutes. Transfer chicken to a plate and cool for 10 minutes, then cut into 3/4-inch pieces.
Toss chicken with vinegar in a large bowl. Add onion, celery, walnuts and grapes. Whisk together mayonnaise, sour cream, and tarragon in a small bowl. Add dressing to chicken, along with salt and pepper, and stir until well combined.
Serve at room temperature or chilled.
Serves 6-8 as a main course.
TROPICAL - Substitute raspberry vinegar for tarragon vinegar and replace the grapes with chopped mango. Use chopped macadamia nuts instead of the walnuts. Serve with avocado halves.
ORIENTAL - Substitute rice wine vinegar for the tarragon vinegar and replace the grapes with either pineapple or red bell pepper. Add 1/8 teaspoon of sesame oil. Use slivered almonds instead of the walnuts. I think even some chow-mein noodles would add a nice crunch to this. Serve in butter lettuce leaves.
MEDITERRANEAN - Use regular white wine vinegar and add 1/4 cup currants. Replace the dried tarragon with dried thyme. Add 1/2 cup of pitted kalamata olives. Add 1 tablespoon of chopped capers. Replace the walnuts with 1/4 cup toasted pine nuts.