Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Tarragon-Apple Chicken Salad

When I look back on my girlhood, I don't remember dances or old beaus--I think about chicken salad. Even then, I was a bit obsessed with food, and my mother didn't have to cajole me to attend teas and luncheons. Nothing could compete with a buffet table: silver platters piled high with petit fours, lemon squares, pecan tassies, pastel mints, and tea sandwiches. An itty bitty chicken salad sandwich could make me swoon. At every event, I stood in line, imagining the first bite: the bread would be soft and barely there, but the salad would be cold, like touching your lips to glacial water, followed by warmth, comfort, and crunch, laced with mayonnaise and sweet bits of meat. One was never enough, but my mother was watching. Only uncouth, unladylike females reached for a second helping, and I tried to restrain myself in front of the chicken salad police. 
And each offering was different. Sometimes the ladies added chopped pecans, grapes, pickle relish, boiled eggs, tomatoes, crushed pineapple, or crunchy Chow Mein noodles. In the pre-Hippie era, kitchen experimentation was acceptable for the ladies, but it was also war.

Successful recipes were guarded, and if you managed to get a copy, you really couldn't trust it. Crafty cooks jealously guarded their secrets. My mother had been deceived many times, puzzling over the handwritten instructions. "Boil a whole, cut up chicken for an hour or two?" she'd mutter to herself. "Add a pleasing amount of brown sugar?" After many experiments, she eventually came up with a salad that met her approval.
Before you make the salad, prepare the chicken* in seasoned water.
In a large pan, add 3 pounds chicken breasts. Add water to cover, then drop in onion slices, a celery stalk, fresh herbs, 1 peeled, whole garlic pod, 1 bay leaf, peppercorns (1 t.), and salt. Use whatever strikes your fancy--and will work with your salad. Like my mother always says, "Never miss an opportunity to add flavor." Seasoned water infuses flavor into your chicken. Use your imagination. Cook the chicken over a low flame 15-20 minutes or until done. Remove the chicken from the pan and cool, then chop.

Now it's time to make a basic mayonnaise* sauce,
1/2 cup mayonnaise (I prefer Dukes)
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
Salt and Pepper to taste

Mix well.
Season your mayonnaise sauce.
1 teaspoon honey 
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon white wine vinegar (or champagne vinegar)
2 tablespoons sour cream (if you don't like sour cream, omit and add 2 T mayonnaise)
I like to add a few drops of Tabasco (but I'm from Louisiana, and it's practically a state law to keep a bottle of Tabasco on the kitchen table).

To the sauce, add your favorite solid ingredients: nuts, fruit, vegetables. Be adventurous!

Tarragon-Apple Chicken Salad
1/2 cup diced onion
1 cup tart apples, chopped
1/2 cup finely chopped celery
2/3 cup chopped toasted pecans
2 Tablespoons fresh tarragon, chopped
chopped chicken
mayonnaise sauce

Mix. Add the chopped chicken. Blend.
Cover the bowl with plastic wrap. Chill for several hours. Serve on crusty bread, lettuce leaves, or spoon into pre-baked puff pastry cups or make crustless tea sandwiches. Serves 4-6

Tarragon adds a feminine element, complimenting the apples and honey with an exotic, aromatic hint, but at the same time it provides balance for savory ingredients. But if you aren't quite sold on tarragon, add 1/8 t. to a scoop of chicken salad. Do you like the exotic flash of anise? My mother hates it. You can always substitute another herb.

(*This recipe for basic chicken salad was published in Consuming Passions, my food memoir/cookbook, Harpercollins, 1999.)

I'm not breaking new culinary ground. It's hard to reinvent the standards, and chicken salad is pretty much a classic. Nowadays, everyone has at least one favorite recipe, and they have stories to tell. But I just felt like talking to you today and hearing about the delicious--and strange--things you've seen in chicken salad. Are you game?

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  1. Sounds delicious! I've never used tarragon before but I'm sure I'd love it.

  2. I am such a sandwich lover but have never made a chicken sandwich such as you describe. It sounds delicious!

  3. We enjoy re-inventing "chicken salad" recipes, anything goes round here, but ALWAYS Dukes mayo, must try tarragon, we love it.

  4. Michael Lee, I love chicken salad...yours looks amazing. My Mother never made hers the same, she would always add something different each time, but it never disappointed. I miss her and her wonderful way in the kitchen!

  5. Perfect recipe to make for a friend who has been sick. Thank you! And as always, your presentation/pictures are beautiful!

  6. This look so delicious...you had me at "sandwich"!!....There is a cute restaurant/deli here called Foster's....owned by Sara Foster who used to by Martha Stewart's catering partner....my fav thing there is the Tarragon Chicken Salad...love it and can't wait to try your recipe!

  7. Your Tarragon Chicken Salad sounds amazing and the next time I go to Costco will get the ingredients. Never put Tarragon in the Chicken salad, but sure sound like it would be good.

    Thanks so uch for the recipe. Have a great rest of the week.


    1. You might want to spoon up a little salad and add 1/8 teaspoon of chopped tarragon and see if it's pleasing. My mother cannot stand tarragon in her chicken salad because it's so pungent. But, then, she won't use tarragon at all. :-)

  8. Love chicken salad! Luckily, at the American Legion tea I attend every spring, it's an all-you-can-eat affair! They serve quartered sandwiches with every delectable filling and homemade soup and cookies!

  9. I will be trying your recipe and like the idea of infused flavors boiling the chicken. Your recipe sounds wonderful.
    Chuckled at your itty bitty tea sandwich description. I attended a ladies function last night and they had a itty bitty pimento cheese and an itty bitty chicken salad sandwich along with a sliver of red velvet and italian cream cake with a few nuts. I definitely could have gone for a whole half of a sandwich.

    1. You'll infuse chicken for pot pies, dumplings, and casseroles. So funny about the tea party. :-) Slivers of red velvet should be against the law!

  10. I just made chicken salad yesterday. I use a rotisserie chicken. I use Miracle Whip, celery, onion, Craisins and cut grapes. S and P to taste. I will definitely try your recipe as chicken salad is my very FAVORITE!!!!

  11. I didn't know you hailed from Louisiana...what part?? Born and raised here....still here!!
    I think I'll make your salad this weekend! My daughter in laws LOVE my chicken salad and always look in the fridge when they get here to see if that special lil bowl of salad is waiting for them...so funny. They never ask if I made it. Just peek into fridge. And giggle like little girls if they find some.
    My friend from WA state puts fresh taragon in hers. First time I'd ever heard of that but OMG!!! Amazeballs!!!

  12. Is there anyway to pin this recipe to Pinterest? I would love to save this to try in the future.

  13. Your description of the chicken salad had me drooling for some, Michael Lee. I first tasted tarragon (dried) in chicken salad way back in the 70's and absolutely loved it. Thanks for sharing your recipe and how you season the water to cook the breasts. I'm craving some chicken salad now.
    P. S. I'm not from Louisiana, but I have a bottle of Tabasco on my kitchen counter and its in a pretty silver container.