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A shower of chicken salad

Thursday, June 03, 1999

By Marlene Parrish, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Along with the picnic hot dogs, Thanksgiving turkey and Easter ham, there is another enduring menu-match: The shower chicken salad. Showers, with their gifts and giggles, are part of a woman's rites of passage into marriage and motherhood. It's hard to think of a single new bride who hasn't been served a plate or two of chicken salad as a prelude to the wedding cake. And it's a rare new mom who hasn't eaten her share of chicken salad prior to the labor pains. Gals open presents, gals eat chicken salad. That's a done deal in America.

Why chicken salad? Easy question. It's inexpensive to make, it can be customized to taste and besides, almost everybody likes chicken. Best of all, it can be prepared in advance, a boon to any hostess who opens her home to 20 or so other women and wants to spend time with her guests and not be stuck in the kitchen tending last-minute food.

It's also a girl thing. Comfort food for the women-who-lunch crowd, chicken salad is a mainstay not only at showers, but at card parties, afternoon meetings and church get-togethers.

Traditionally and consistently, chicken salad is a combo of cooked poultry, celery and great gobs of mayonnaise. Piled in hollowed-out tomatoes or plopped on lettuce cups, it's often mundane, fattening and boring.

But it doesn't have to be. The chicken salad of today can be anything you want it to be. Slimmed down, for one.

Because chicken is so bland, it works as a canvas for flavor painting. It will take on the attributes and exotic ingredients of regional and worldwide cuisines, comfortable with vinaigrettes and Asian-based dressings as well as with the traditional mayo.

Unfortunately, making chicken salad requires dealing with a whole lot of work up front. If you have the time and energy, do it yourself. Shop, schlep, pre-cook chicken, pull the meat from bones, get the kitchen messed up, take out the garbage, scrub the counters, mop the floor, exhaust yourself.

So what are you, a martyr?

Let the other guy cook it

Eliminate the first and hardest step and buy cooked chicken.

"We sell our rotisserie-cooked chicken deboned, and ready to go," says Walt Obiecunas, at the Crossgates Plaza Boston Market store in Upper St. Clair.

"You can order all white meat or mixed white and dark roasted meat, no skin and no bones, for $4.50 a pound. If you want the skin and bones, you can get those, too. When you call the night before, we just load on extra chicken to roast. But it's better to call in the order a few days ahead, especially if you're planning for a crowd," he says.

Boston Market also sells ready-made chicken salad for $6 a pound.

(If you buy from Boston Market, ask for the bones and skin to be packaged separately. Toss them in the freezer and make a rich chicken stock on some future lazy day.)

Most people like the look and taste of all white meat in chicken salad, says prepared foods manager Sandra Godfrey at the Giant Eagle in Waterworks Plaza. "We sell only boneless white breast meat. The cooked and boned chicken meat sells for $7.99 a pound."

She suggests that you call in a special order a few days to a week in advance.

At the Food Gallery in Shadyside, cooked boneless chicken breast sells for $6.19 a pound, and they need at least one day's notice.

Not all of the outlets and supermarkets have had requests for boned chicken, and your order may come as a surprise to them. For best results, ask to speak with the store manager.

Amarraca in the North Hills has never had a request for cooked and boned chicken, but they will work up a price if there is interest. Their prepared chicken salad at $6.99 a pound is a big seller -- on deli trays, in croissant sandwiches and in tea sandwiches. FYI, the home cook could customize a ready-to-eat chicken salad with chopped herbs and add-ins such as grapes and sliced toasted almonds.

How much cooked boneless chicken to buy? Boston Market recommends a generous 1/2 pound of chicken per person to allow for large portions and leftovers. But Giant Eagle recommends a modest 1/4 pound of chicken per person when it is going to be made into salad.

As a compromise, home cooks can estimate that 1 pound of boneless chicken, or 2 cups of meat, will serve four people when made into salad. Then buy an extra pound or two to cover last-minute changes and leftovers.

The chicken will be in big chunks and pieces. You will need to cut and dice it into consistently sized pieces, about 1/2- to 3/4-inch dice.

Use all white meat or a mixture of white and dark. All white meat arguably will be prettier, but bland and possibly dry. Nobody says so, but the truth is, boneless chicken breasts are simply easier to buy and cook than thigh meat. Dark meat will add nuggets of flavor and a tastier bite. However, if you've looked critically at dark meat lately, you'll see that most of it isn't very dark.

When the Post-Gazette tested recipes using Boston Market chicken, we used a half and half mixture of white and dark meat and found the salads to be juicy and full of rich chicken flavor.

Rules of thumb

If you cook the chicken yourself, count on about 1 cup of meat per pound of whole bird. For example, a 3 1/2- to 4-pound chicken will yield 3 1/2 to 4 cups of meat after it has been roasted, skinned, boned and diced. Three quarters of a pound of skinless, boneless chicken breast will yield about 2 cups of cooked chicken, diced or shredded.

Plan a dry run. Make up a small batch of chicken salad, about four servings, a week or so ahead of the party as a module to check flavors and amounts. Then do the math to determine the quantities needed for the party crowd.

Cook the chicken in advance. Poaching and microwaving produce the moistest but blandest results. Roasting, sautéing and stir-frying give intensified flavor and grilling and broiling impart a dark color and a deep, browned taste.

Use a formula. For a classic chicken salad, try these proportions: 4 parts chicken, 2 parts celery, 1 part mayonnaise. For example, for each 4 cups of chicken, use 2 cups chopped celery and about 1 cup of mayo or enough to bind. Add-ins will expand the volume.

Customize the mayo. There's always the option of opening a jar of Hellman's finest and doctoring it to taste. Some people prefer not to eat raw egg yolks and the young, the old and people with weakened immune systems should avoid them, but nothing beats a good homemade mayonnaise. Some mayo variations might be curry, green goddess or aioli.

Customize the add-ins. To a basic chicken salad, add any one of the following:

French fine herbs -- parsley, tarragon, chives and chervil

Drained and dried capers

Chopped scallions or chopped sweet pickles

Sliced water chestnuts

Chopped hard-cooked eggs

Chopped red delicious apples with their skins

Chopped walnuts or pecans.

Taste. Bottom line, is the salad well-seasoned? The biggest sin home cooks make is under-seasoning. Bland is bad. Before serving, check for salt and pepper. Remember that cold blunts flavor, and the chicken salad will be on the cool side. If the salad needs a lift, add spritzes of lemon juice. If it could use a brighter flavor, reach for Tabasco.

Plan an assembly line. Allow lots of room to assemble the plates. Be a friend of food safety and get the food out of the fridge at the last minute, place it on cool plates and get it served with some efficiency. Then refrigerate the extra salad until someone wants seconds.

Portion control. Put away the spoon. Use an ice-cream scoop or a measuring cup to dip and unmold portions. Everyone gets the same amount and the salad will be consistently shaped. One-half cup portions suit most appetites.

In restaurant lingo, if chicken salad is the center of the plate, consider the all-important supporting cast. Remember that shapes and textures are important. Chicken salad is uneven and plain-ish, so its go-withs should have distinctive shapes and be brightly colored. Depending on the flavors in the salad, here are some possibilities.

A wedge or two of perfectly ripened cheese served at room temperature, never flavor-numbing cold.

Vividly colored fruit or vegetables such as large strawberries, slices of citrus-spritzed papaya or avocado, cherry tomatoes, asparagus spears or tomato wedges.

Breads or simple dinner rolls such as Parker House or whole grain; something sweet such as glazed cinnamon spirals; and a quick bread, maybe corn bread or an herb loaf. Cheese twists or breadsticks are good for crunch and shape.

Olives, great big deli olives or dry wrinkled marinated olives or a mixture of the two add a salty bite.

And what's the wrap? A totally feminine dessert is de rigueur -- a rich layer or cream cake, a fruit tart or individual strawberry shortcakes swirled with clouds of whipped cream. Tea or coffee in fine china cups would add a tinkly finish.

Now, let the unwrapping begin.

Related Recipes:

Ginger Chicken Salad
Chicken Club Salad
Jambalaya Salad

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