Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Repertoire: Curried Chicken Salad

It was the curried chicken salad recipe I thought of first. Back when we lived in Vancouver and I was catering a bit I did so with my friend and partner, Sarah. She is the one who came up with most of the savory items we served. Glory and revelation! She was amazing at the simple, nourishing bits of life. Think humus and salad and muffins. I was beyond envy. And thankfulness. (We made a great team.)

When it came time for a baby shower tea the last spring we were in Canada, Sarah and I decided on a version of these sandwiches. Now, I had missed the concept of chicken salad altogether until Sarah came along, definitely. Everyone made chicken salad. Why should we? But then tea time came, and Sarah convinced me. Chicken salad in any form is a classic and nothing to be ashamed of, and a curried version is just as worth keeping in your quiver.  

Tea sandwich closeup on plate

And that is where the recipe has settled, close by, in my repertoire. It is the kind of well-known staple that makes life easier. You don't have to think much. It just happens. But it isn't just around for ease's sake. The salad hits all the right buttons: It is creamy, tangy, savory, spicy, crunchy, cooling, and sweet. And like the best of recipes, it is adaptable. Chopped large with a little less dressing and it works on a bed of crisp lettuce. Tricked out with preserved lemon, cilantro, and dried cherries and is feels perky enough for summer. Left simple, minced small, and cozied close to a smear of tart chutney and it is at home on slices of trimmed whole wheat bread, fit for high tea.

And that is exactly what we did at the Good Humus Hats and High Tea. We chopped everything fine. We left out some of the optional additions so the salad got its sweet-tart balance from a mirror sandwiching of Spicy Juniper Quince* chutney. And we let it do its thing.

I'd like to think I am learning what Sarah does so well. Because the recipes that matter are the ones that get repeated: the tea cake in so many forms; the buttercream; the salads; the fruited breads and fruited cakes, the infusions and the liqueurs. And this simple number, made ahead and in peace, toted to picnics and baby showers and teas. When I am old and my white hair wound and pinned up in a bun, I want people to remember recipes like this.

*If you, like me, cannot live without this jam, be at peace: They ship! Just go to their Orders page and have at it. My favorites right now are the charmers we used for the tea menu: Spicy Juniper Quince, Strawberry Thyme Jam, Sal Mesclada de Capay spice blend, Elderberry Syrup, and Annie's three citrus Marmalade. Next on my list: the Citrus Flower Tea. Enjoy!

Curried Chicken Salad

This recipe has a high yield, it is true - almost 6 cups! But the convenience of boiling a whole chicken and not measuring the meat keeps me from ever halving it. If quantity is something that concerns you, cook the whole chicken and reserve half of the meat for another use, then halve the remaining ingredients for the dressing and additions. As I said, adaptable. And forgiving, too.

And! I kept the ingredients we left out of the tea sandwiches optional, for clarity, but I almost regret leaving out the almonds at the tea. They are such a delight. My staple way to make this is to be sure there is some nut and some fruit, somewhere - usually quite a bit. I suppose the ratio of chicken to "additions" becomes such that the "chicken" salad becomes something else entirely. But we can have such essential debates elsewhere.

For the chicken:
one whole chicken, about 5 pounds
1 yellow onion, quartered
2 celery stalks, cut in chunks
2 carrots, cut in chunks
2 bay leaves

For the Dressing:
1½-2 cups good-quality mayonnaise
juice of 1-1½ lemons
¼ cup spicy brown mustard
3 tablespoons good-quality curry powder
1 teaspoon salt, maybe more, to taste
¼ cup vinegary chutney (optional if pairing with external chutney or jam)
Leftover chicken stock, if needed

1 bunch green onions
4 stalks celery
¼ cup minced cilantro 

1 cup toasted slivered or chopped almonds, pecans, or cashews (optional)
½  a preserved lemon, finely minced (optional)
1 apple (optional)
½ cup raisins OR dried cherries OR currants (optional)

Cook the chicken: Immerse chicken in water, add chunks of celery and carrots, bay leaves, onion, and a couple four-finger pinches of salt. Bring to a boil and then lower to a simmer for 45-60 minutes, or until thighs come loose easily when grabbed and twisted with tongs. Transfer chicken to a bowl and cool before you skin and bone the chicken. Set the meat aside. Put the bones back in the stockpot and simmer for 4 to 24 hours (no, that is not a typo). Strain, cool, and enjoy! (I freeze mine in quart-sized yogurt containers.)

Make the dressing: Whisk together the (lesser amount of) mayonnaise, curry powder, lemon juice, chutney, preserved lemon, and salt in a small bowl. Set aside.

Put it all together: Decide what you're going to use the mix for: salad? sandwiches? Chop accordingly: Large for a salad, medium to small for sandwiches, small for tea-sized sandwiches. I usually stick with a medium chop so I can go either way. 

Chop the meat to desired texture - best done by hand, a food processor makes it pasty - and place in a large bowl. Finely chop the green onions and celery, by hand or in a food processor, including all additions except the nuts. Save those for later. Stir it all together. Add enough dressing to moisten and mix well. You want a moist but not loose mixture, not at all dry, and not one flavor overpowering the other. Stir in more mayonnaise, if needed. Or, add a slosh or two of the beautiful chicken stock. 

Otherwise: Add sweet things if it is too savory. Salt if it tastes boring. Lemon juice if it is too sweet. More dressing or chicken stock if too dry. It can be stored in the refrigerator for up to a week. Add the nuts right before serving. Enjoy!


  1. Dried cranberries - it'll need dried cranberries for me. Not a fan of dried cherries or raisins.

    1. Go for it. :) Kevin would agree. Maybe I should just say "dried fruit of choice."

  2. Ooo - dried apricots and almonds - I love that combination. And that recipe would feed an army, fer shure.

  3. Amanda my friend, you are too kind. Thank you for these lovely memories. What a gift it was to cut our catering teeth together. I'm eating a late night snack at the moment: a lentil and farro salad spiked with orange zest and Italian parsley that made me think of you when I made it the other day. Love to you from the east coast. -Sarah