Chicken Salad. Simple, homey, banal old chicken salad. White bread, or toast if you are feeling audacious, a smear of mayo, a slice of tomato, one single lettuce leaf and a scoop of chicken salad. Nothing more American than chicken salad for lunch. Or tuna salad, come to think of it, but tuna is particular in its bold, distinctive, fishy flavor, often hard to please. There are only so many ways that tuna salad can be prepared, only so many ingredients that marry well with the assertive fishiness. But something about chicken is universal; its very blandness is the perfect backdrop, a tabula rasa for anything. As Laurie Colwin stated, it is so adaptable.
One can say that chicken salad’s very essence is American. Start with the chicken itself, poached or roasted, simple and tender, a blank page; chop it, mince it, shred it, precise, clean and elegant, or rough, frayed, ever so scraggy and casual. A spoonful or three of mayonnaise, of course, cool, velvety, rich and then, really, it can take on any personality at all. Slivers of sun-dried tomatoes, the sharp tang of mustard or vinegar, the salty pull of olives, the smoky masculinity of bacon or ham, the bite of your favorite pickle. Give it the hot, spicy kick of Tabasco or the gentle sweetness of grapes or pears, the crunch of apples or walnuts. Or bring in your own cultural touch, your very own personal taste: toss in curry, garam masala, chickpeas and coriander for an Indian twist; chunks of feta, cubes of ripe tomatoes, onions and dark, glistening, slippery, tangy olives for something reminiscent of the Greek Isles; Chinese, Italian, Russian, Irish, pull up something from your favorite cuisine or your own family roots, chicken salad is the Melting Pot of food.
But he did so much more than bake. He loved being in the kitchen. Weekends he would toss steaks or burgers on the grill when he wasn’t flipping pancakes on the griddle. And his hoagies! How we loved his hoagies! He would bake loaves of frozen, buttery garlic bread, split each one open, spread on the mayonnaise, and with the precision, exactitude and fastidiousness of the engineer that he was, he would layer and mound paper thin slices of cold cuts, salamis and cheeses, top with a row of tomato slices, lettuce leaves and, his secret ingredient, his final touch, a drizzle of Italian salad dressing. Ah, hoagie night.
And he made all of the salads. He was the king of salads. Tuna and chicken salads, chopped liver, whatever you please. His chicken salad was thick and creamy, dotted with bits of carrots and celery for color and crunch, maybe an onion finely minced, salted and peppered and it needed nothing more than that to be turned into a perfect sandwich. We were plain, simple folk with a taste for something that simply said American comfort food, a meal that simply said home.
Now I am all grown up and have so many worlds, cultures and cuisines at my fingertips. That bowl of cooked, chopped chicken takes on many forms, so many different personalities depending upon the season, the weather and my mood. Often, I will fill my shopping cart or market basket with an array of condiments, flavors and textures that will bring a new chicken salad to life, to be packed for a picnic, served up for lunch or eaten at a buffet. But as we delve deeper and deeper into apartment renovations, as my time is sucked into a black hole…. No, no. As my time is taken up by painting and polishing parquet and making design decisions, I have less and less time to devote to cooking. Shopping is done on the run, cooking is now a thrown together affair, a “let’s dig through the cupboard and fridge” kind of smorgasbord event as we collapse in front of the television for the evening. Yet as I dashed to the market yesterday to pick up cheeses and baguette and fruit, whatever to make a quick, impromptu meal or two, chicken salad crossed my mind. I haven’t thought of chicken salad in years. I bought tomatoes, an avocado and a tiny bouquet of pearl onions and ran home. And I was on my way.
Tonight’s version of chicken salad is made up of what I had on had: mayonnaise, mustard and red wine vinegar for a creamy dressing with a slight bite and a slight tang. Slivered spring or pearl salad onions, chunks of avocado as well as a couple of minced hardboiled eggs and a cupful of cooked white beans for both added nutritional value and consistency. From there, toss in a handful of fresh coriander, chunks of feta, slivers of sundried tomatoes or sliced pickles. Or a handful of olives. I make mine rather plain and serve the extras on the side so each diner can create his own perfect flavor combination. And dad’s spirit hung over us, glided in and out of the kitchen and livingroom as we dined on the perfect American buffet, comfort food to soother body and soul after a long day of renovations. Serve with fresh bread, tossed salad, a cheese platter, a bowl of fruit and a bottle of light, fruity white wine. Yes, please.
I have decided to add to my menu chocolate cake. I have taken Abby Dodge’s fabulous Emergency Blender Chocolate Cupcakes from The Weekend Baker (a cookbook that I highly recommend to beginner and experienced bakers alike) and turned them into tiny Bundt cakes to serve simply (what else?) dusted with powdered sugar. Feel free to serve them with a scoop of your favourite ice cream, whipped cream or my Chocolate Whipped Cream or Coffee Whipped Cream.
This Chicken Salad and individual Chocolate Bund Cakes is for this month’s Monthly Mingle (a blogging even created by Meeta), hosted by my friend and fellow American expat Jenn of Jenn Cuisine. Her Monthly Mingle theme is Americana. And what is more American than Chicken Salad? And chocolate cake!
NOTA BENE: A home baker can never have enough easy, quick, one-bowl cake recipes. Why use a boxed mix when you can have a homemade, from-scratch cake with barely more time, energy or trouble? Here are a few of my own personal favorites:
Chocolate Espresso Layer Cake
Special Chocolate Cake
Eggless "Lickety Split" Chocolate Cake
Best Chocolate Chip Banana Bread
This is the basic version, then add to it what you will. This serves about 4 people, American, French or whoever happens to be in your home and hungry, as part of a luncheon or light dinner spread.
2 large chicken breasts
2 – 4 cups chicken or vegetable broth or stock, enough to cover the breasts
3.5 oz (100 g) smoked lardons cubes (I use Matchstick) or bacon
2 – 4 large eggs
5 or more Tbs mayonnaise, homemade or excellent quality jarred
1 – 2 Tbs mustard, to taste
1 – 2 tsps red wine vinegar, to taste
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 can cooked white beans, rinsed
1 ripe avocado, peeled and cubed
Spring or pearl salad onions, trimmed of the green and the white part thinly sliced
1 small or medium-sized carrot, trimmed and cleaned (peeled or scraped)
1 – 2 cups cherry tomatoes, rinsed and halved, optional
Pat the chicken breasts with paper towelling and trim off any excess pockets of fat. Place the breasts in a pot of simmering chicken or vegetable stock or broth (homemade, canned or from a stock cube is fine) and allow to simmer until cooked through (the center went sliced open should no longer be pink). This takes about 10 minutes, more or less depending upon the thickness of the breasts. Remove from the stock and allow to cool.
Hardboil 2 to 4 eggs, allow to cool, peel and rinse. Fry the lardons or bacon in a dry skillet until crispy. If use bacon, crumble or cut into matchsticks. Allow to cool.
When cooled, chop or mince. When the chicken has cooled, chop, cube, mince, shred or slice the cooked chicken and place in a medium or large mixing bowl. Grate the carrot into the bowl – I use the largest holes of the grater. Add the lardons or bacon, the thinly sliced onion and the minced hardboiled eggs. Whisk the 5 tablespoons of the mayonnaise with 1 tablespoon of the mustard and taste. Add more mayonnaise or mustard to taste. Whisk in 1 teaspoon of the red wine vinegar. Fold into the chicken salad. Salt and pepper.
Gently fold the rinsed and drained white beans and the avocado chunks. Add the cherry tomatoes and anything else you choose to add (pickle slices, slivers of sundried tomatoes, pitted olives, fresh herbs, seedless grapes, pear or apple chunks, coarsely chopped pecans or walnuts, etc.) and fold together.
Now taste to adjust seasonings: add more mustard, half a tablespoon at a time, or more vinegar, 1 teaspoon at a time, salt and pepper until desired taste is attained.
Serve immediately at room temperature or keep covered with plastic wrap and chilled in the refrigerator until ready to serve and eat.
ABBY’S ONE-BOWL CHOCOLATE CUPCAKES
Or mini Bundts
Abby uses a blender to prepare this batter – whizzing all of the dry ingredients together and then adding the wet ingredients and whizzing to combine. I do it the old fashioned way, with a whisk. I only change I made was adding ground cinnamon. All dry ingredients should be lightly spooned into the measuring cup and leveled with a knife blade.
Nota Bene: What I particularly love about chocolate cakes like this is that one can add a hint of any favorite flavoring one desires: add a tablespoon of Grand Marnier, Cointreau or Amaretto; add 2 teaspoons of dry, powdered espresso powder or replace some of the hot water with strong prepared coffee; add the grated zest of an orange or a lemon or a splash of orange or another fruit juice, measuring the liquid as part of the ¾ cup hot water. Add a pinch of another spice that pairs well with chocolate, such as a gingerbread, pumpkin or apple pie spice. Just for a few suggestions.
1 cup (130 g) flour
½ cup (45 g) unsweetened cocoa powder
1 cup (200 g) granulated sugar
½ tsp baking soda
¼ tsp salt
½ tsp ground cinnamon, optional
¾ cup (175 ml) hot water
½ cup (120 ml) vegetable oil
1 large egg
1 tsp vanilla
Preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C) – I set my very unpredictable and overly hot oven to 185°C. Line 12 regular-size muffin cups with paper liners or butter and flour 12 individual mini Bundt cups (the easiest way to butter mini Bundt cups is with softened or just-melted butter and a soft pastry brush. Dust with flour and turn over the sink and shake/tap out all excess flour)
Combine the flour, cocoa powder (I sift the cocoa powder into the bowl), sugar, baking soda, salt and ground cinnamon into a large mixing bowl. Whisk in the water, then the oil, egg and vanilla until smooth and blended.
Pour into the prepared muffin or mini Bundt cups – I scrape the liquid batter into a large measuring cup with a lip/spout which makes the job of pouring into muffin tins easier and cleaner. Divide the batter evenly among the cups.
Bake until a tester inserted in the center of one of the cupcakes or Bundlets comes out clean; the top of one cake should spring back when lightly pressed and the edges of the Bundlets should be starting to pull away from the tin. Remive the pan from the oven onto a cooling rack and allow to cool for about 10 minutes before carefully popping out the cupcakes or mini Bundts. Allow to cool completely before serving.