I have a deep and abiding love of chicken salad. It wasn't always this way. I grew up a solid "lunch meats" kind of girl, because that's what you eat for lunch when you are from Wisconsin. Maybe mix a little PBJ in the rotation to keep things interesting. But then I married Terry. He was an avowed omnivore, but the more we were together the more I noticed that there were a few things he didn't eat, and it just so happened those things took out most options for breakfast (he doesn't like eggs) and lunch (he doesn't eat lunch meat). So I became a real quick study in the fine art of homemade chicken salads. Three Berry Chicken Salad with Thyme, Tarragon and Toasted Pinenuts
My curried thyme chicken salad (garnished with mango chutney) is a huge hit in our house and my usual first choice. But when it came time for me to whip up the spread for the lunch reception after my son's baptism, I wanted something that would be a little more classic. So I started with a vague idea of wanting to add some interesting twists to a classic chicken salad with dried fruits.
Between a perusal of my pantry and a trip to the grocer, I found inspiration in dried cranberries, cherries and blueberries, set off by the bright herbal flavors of fresh thyme, tarragon and dried oregano. Tarragon is a classic in chicken salad, but I usually don't use it. Thyme is my herb of choice to set off the sweetness in the fruit. I always opt for a little dried cumin to accent the meatiness of the chicken.
A Note on Herbs:
When working with fresh thyme, I prefer to use the leaves only, not the stalks, which can be a bit woody sometimes. To quickly remove the leaves, grasp a stalk between your thumb and forefinger, with your fingernail against the stalk. Use your other hand to pull the stalk out from between the two fingers. As your nails pass along the stalk they will remove most of the thyme leaves.
I used fresh thyme because I find its flavor much more potent, with a flavor that is more perky and spring-like. I used dried tarragon because I couldn't find it fresh at the store, but fresh tarragon in this recipe would also be good, although you might have to adjust the amount. In this recipe I prefer dried oregano to fresh, but you have to be sure you are using very fragrant (new) dried oregano. If your oregano doesn't slap you in the face with scent when you open the container, its time to get some new. This is why I prefer to shop for my spices in the bulk aisle at Whole Foods, where I can only purchase quantities that I know I will use quickly, so nothing sits on my shelves for months on end getting stale and flavorless.
Serves 25. Okay to halve.
6 lbs boneless skinless chicken breasts
4 tsp sea salt, divided
freshly ground black pepper
2 Tbsp olive oil (or Pam spray)
1 cup toasted pine nuts
3/4 cup dried cranberries
1/2 cup dried blueberries
1/2 cup dried cherries
2.5 cups mayo
2 Tbsp lemon juice
4.5 Tbsp fresh thyme
1.5 Tbsp dried tarragon
1 Tbsp cumin
1 Tbsp dried oregano
2.5 cups celery, finely chopped
1/2 cup sweet yellow onion, finely chopped
2.5 granny smith apples, finely chopped
Layer chicken breasts in a roasting pan. Fill pan 1/4 inch with white wine (this helps the breasts become juicy and flavorful). Drizzle with olive oil or spray with pam, and shake 2 tsp sea salt over the top. Crank freshly cracked pepper over each breast. Roast for one hour on 350 degrees. Remove from roasting pan and allow to cool (discard wine and roasting juices, or freeze it to add some oomph to your sauces or stocks in the future).
Cut the chicken into small pieces (I prefer mine 1/4 inch), and add to a very large bowl.
Finely chop the celery and onion, add to chicken.
Toast pine nuts in a saute pan over low heat, stirring frequently to prevent burning. Toast until they are deep golden brown and fragrant. Add to chicken.
Roughly chop the cranberries, blueberries and cherries, add to chicken.
In a second bowl, combine remaining ingredients, except apples. (Note: I like to mix the remaining ingredients together in a separate bowl first, to ensure that they are well combined and will distribute evenly throughout the chicken salad. But if you are truly loathe to dirty up a second bowl, you could get away with mixing everything together in one big bowl.)
Finely chop apples and add them to the mayo mixture, stirring to coat thoroughly. (Note: I prefer to cut the apples last so that they can quickly be added to the mayo mixture to prevent browning. I use my small capacity food processor to make easy work of finely chopping the apples. You don't want them pureed, but I prefer that the celery, onion and apples all be cut quite small so that you get a smoother, more blended taste out of each bite. Larger chunks sometimes means that one bite might have overwhelming onion, or be dominated by apple. This is a matter of taste.)
Combine chicken mixture and the mayo mixture, stirring to mix well.
Serve on bread or croissant.
Three Berry Chicken Salad with Thyme, Tarragon and Toasted PinenutsBy The Skinny Gourmet (E McDonnell)