Who can resist the wonderful experience of a well-made chicken salad on fresh bread, maybe with a cup of hot steaming cream of tomato soup on the side? I have many fond memories of sitting at bistros, enjoying the alfresco, and sipping Earl Grey tea, and nibbling on a great chicken salad sandwich. The sweet taste and texture of chunky chicken, combined with the creamy ecstasy of mayonnaise, and crunchy celery., is almost more than the taste-buds can stand. There is nothing like a good chicken salad recipe.
This noble bird (Gallus domesticus), was first domesticated in China over 8000 years ago. The many breeds of modern chickens all came from the wild Asian Junglefowl breeds, which are still around, and bred for the despicable ‘sport’ of cockfighting. By 3000 BC, domestic chickens had spread all across Europe, the Middle East, and even to Polynesia. It is a common belief that the Spanish Conquistadors brought chickens to the New World, but in reality, there is archaeological evidence that chickens were being raised in Chile as early as 1350 AD. Over time, chickens were bred to be larger, tamer, less inclined to roam, and to lay larger, and more eggs. Eventually, breeders produced the modern breeds that we know and love, today.
The next thing to ponder is how the chicken (or anything else) got between the bread. The concept is said to have originated with the ancient Jewish philosopher Hillel the Elder. He was said to be fond of wrapping lamb slices and bitter herbs in flat, unleavened bread, known as matzos. They were sort of like a Jewish Tortilla. Almost every culture on the planet has had some sort of flat, unleavened bread associated with it, and it is certain that the idea of rolling meat and veggies up in it spread rapidly across the known world. It was the first fast-food. It was delicious, portable, and left one hand free to deal cards, hold the reins of a horse (or camel), hold a fishing pole, or even wield a weapon, if necessary. Africa and the Middle East have retained their love of unleavened flat breads, but in Europe, yeast-breads came to dominate the baked-goods industry. Sandwiches in England, and other parts of Europe, had an ignominious beginning, in the Middle Ages. In taverns and inns, slabs of beef were hung from the rafters, and portions were sliced off as needed. Plates and dinnerware were very expensive, and subject to theft, so only the rich, and powerful got to use plates, knives and forks to eat with. For commoners, the beef was served on thin slices of hard, usually stale bread, as a plate, and food was eaten with the hands. After eating, the juice-soaked bread was thrown to waiting dogs, or the poor and less fortunate among them. The first mention of an open-faced sandwich was in the 17th century, where naturalist John Ray commented on the practice of laying thin slices of beef on buttered bread. It wasn’t long before someone figured out that if you used two slices of bread, it became a very portable food. The idea spread, and “meat and bread” became the food of choice for men at card games, gamblers, and men on the go. The modern name of the sandwich owes it’s birth to none other than John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich. The Earl was very fond of ‘meat and bread’, because it allowed him to play his favorite game, Cribbage, and not get the cards greasy from eating with his hands. He had his valet bring meat and bread with him at all times when traveling, so it became common when ordering ‘meat and bread’ in a tavern to simply say “the same as Sandwich”. This became shortened to simply ‘sandwich’. Thus, a legend was born.
It is a good bet that somewhere, sometime, someone began using leftover chicken to mix with other things, and make a palatable dish. But the first official chicken salad recipe is an All-American creation. Even though the Chinese have been making something similar to chicken salad, it was a far cry from what we are familiar with in the US. It all started in 1863, Wakefield, Rhode Island in a small, but very popular butcher shop called, simply, Town Meats. The owner, Liam Gray, hated waste, so he began to mix his leftover (but still edible) chicken meat with mayonnaise, tarragon, and grapes, and serving it cold as Chicken Salad. The creation became such a hit that he converted the butcher shop to a delicatessen, and was still in business until just a few years ago.
Today, there are as many variations of chicken salad as there are people. The only rules for chicken salad are that it must be served cold, use some sort of binder (usually mayonnaise, but there is nothing stopping someone from trying mustard, ketchup, sour cream, cream cheese, or any combination.), at least one raw vegetable, fruit, or any combination, such as onion, garlic, celery, grapes, Mandarin Oranges, pineapple, apples, etc…, and, of course, cooked chicken, as a rule, skinless, boneless, and more often than not, all breast meat. Other than that, anything goes. The meat can be chunky, or shredded, grilled, smoked, fried, steamed, or boiled. You can add nuts, seeds, bean spouts, and/or any spices you want.
To tell the truth, I don’t think I have ever had any chicken salad that wasn’t delicious, no matter how simple. A dear friend of mine had a small deli downtown once, and her most popular item was her chicken salad, which was just chicken chunks, mayo, and celery. Not even any salt and pepper. I never went in there when it wasn’t full of people chowing-down on her creation. She has since moved on to bigger and better things, and her deli is now an Ice Cream shop, but most of us around here still have fond memories of her, and her outstanding sandwiches. So, don’t be afraid to experiment. Be creative, and release the culinary artist that lives within you. Here are a few chicken salad recipes to get you started, including Liam Gray’s Original Chicken Salad.
Liam Gray’s Original Chicken Salad
1 lb. of leftover chicken meat, with skin and bones removed, and shredded.
1/4 cup of juice, from the chicken (or chicken broth)
1/4 cup of seedless grapes (red, or white), cut in to eight pieces each.
1/4 cup mayonnaise
2 tsp tarragon
salt and pepper to taste
Place all the ingredients in a suitably-sized mixing bowl and toss together (gently, so as not to crush the grapes) until well mixed. Chill for at least 2 hours before serving.
Serve on a bed of lettuce, carefully placing the chicken salad in the center with an ice-cream scoop . Garnish with a tomato wedge, and crackers. Can also be used on sandwiches.
Kelly’s Simple Chicken Salad
This is the girl I told you about that had the delicatessen downtown. Her chicken salad had a simplistic, country-goodness about it that was hard to beat. Don’t worry about exact proportions. Just do whatever looks right to you. That’s the beauty of this recipe.
1 gal. or so of water
4-8 large boneless, skinless chicken breast fillets
2-4 cups mayonnaise
1/2-1 cup celery, sliced thin
The night before you plan to make the chicken salad, add the water to a large pot, and bring to a boil over hi heat. Add the 4 chicken fillets, and when the water returns to a full boil, lower the heat to a simmer. Cook the chicken just until it is no longer pink in the center. Do not overcook. Place the chicken in a container and just cover with some of the chicken water. Place a lid on the container, and refrigerate overnight.
The next day, remove the chicken from the container, dispose of the water, and cut the fillets into 1/2″ chunks. Place the chicken in a large mixing bowl. Slice the celery, and add it to the bowl. Add the mayonnaise, and toss the whole mixture well. Return to the refrigerator and chill for at least 2 hours before serving. Use on sandwiches, or on a bed of lettuce, with crackers as a garnish.
Curried Chicken Salad
2 cups cooked chicken, diced
1 stalk celery, diced
2 green onions, sliced thin, or 1/4 onion, diced
1/3 cup golden raisins
1/4 cup slivered almonds (you can toast them if you want)
1/2 to 3/4 cup mayonnaise, or to taste
1 tsp lemon juice
1/2 tsp curry powder ( you can add more if you want it spicier)
salt and pepper, to taste
In a mixing bowl, combine the diced chicken, celery, onion, almonds, and raisins.
Toss with the lemon juice and mayonnaise. Add more mayonnaise, if you need to, but don’t make it too runny.
Add curry powder, and salt, and pepper, to taste.
Serve on lettuce, sandwiches, or in pita bread for a ‘pocket’ sandwich.
Cajun Chicken Salad
A fantastic chicken salad with the great taste of Louisiana Cajun Cooking.
4 cups of cooked white meat chicken, diced
1 1/2 cups celery, chopped fine
1 1/2 cups green onions, chopped fine
3/4 cup mayonnaise
1/2 cup pecans, chopped fine
1/2 cup fresh parsley, chopped
1 1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp white pepper
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1/4 tsp McIlhenny’s Tabasco Sauce ( you can, of course, substitute one of the lesser so-called Louisianan sauces such as Bullseye, Crystals, Louisiana, or Texas Pete, but if you want the real deal, stick with the only real Tabasco Sauce…McIlhenny’s.
Add all the ingredients to a mixing bowl and toss until well mixed. Adjust the mayonnaise as necessary to achieve the desired consistency. Chill for at least 2 hours before serving.
This is best served on Hoagie Buns, or Sandwich Rolls.
Garnish with a large glass of iced tea, and a picture of Justin Wilson.