It's July in New York so of course it's hot as Hades and as humid as you can imagine. This isn't a Southern heat, or even a Midwestern heat, but it's still formidable and with the state of the subway being as disorganized and dangerous as its been of late, New Yorkers are often left facing both uncooled stations and subway cars in our commutes. Recently, on a long trek back form Rockaway Beach's Jacob Riis park my friend and I watched as not one, but two NYC buses left us and a group of other confused beach goers stranded at what turned out to be the correct stop. As we waited, and my impatience grew, he and I talked about what were each were each going to get for dinner after a long day of indulging in delicious Frosé.
It was then my friend mentioned that the chicken salad at the bodega around the corner from the radio station was surprising very good. Apparently this thought stuck with me, because for the rest of the week I was craving chicken salad. This is not something I'd usually order at a bodega, or anywhere really, but the one we used to serve at Beast (RIP, the restaurant I used to work at on the corner of Vanderbilt and Bergen) was exceptional and definitely merited my hunger pangs. But the restaurant had been closed for years, and the chef who devised that recipe had long since moved away. So where to begin? There was only one chef who came to mind, and just imagining how she would even say "chicken salad" made me certain I would not be steered wrong.
Who else but Ina Garten? The queen of making luxury look simple and effortless, of making evening Hamptons beach picnics seem as accessible and practical as they seem delicious. While her occasional decadence and innate grace and charm might make Ina slightly off-putting to the average bumbling home cook, she is absolutely no nonsense in her cooking. I'm serious, there's not a recipe of hers I have made that hasn't turned out absolutely perfect. If there's a chef to turn to, it's Ina, and you will not ever be lost in your kitchen if you simply ask yourself WWID or What Would Ina Do?
I was pretty lucky that somehow this Christmas my mom received two copies of Ina's Cooking for Jeffery, because I got to take the extra copy and there's hardly a recipe in the book that I don't want to make. Ina is many things, but she is almost always a perfect balance of practical and classic. Chicken salad likely came of the era of horrifying cold salads, those unpalatable things you see shaped into molds in the color image spreads of 1950s and 60s cookbooks. But it stuck around and is, when prepared correctly, totally palatable and makes for a great quick lunch. Ina has had episodes dedicated to recreating classic menus like Truman Capote's famous black and white party, so I knew without question that she'd have this recipe on lock. I also knew that starting with her chicken salad recipe would be 1) not difficult 2) a foundation on which to build other flavors. While I loved her take, and it's what you should expect to find if you order chicken salad anywhere, there are a lot of directions you can go from there.
What will the future hold? I've already been wanting to make a curry chicken salad with golden raisins, or a pesto chicken salad with mozzarella and the summers best cherry tomatoes stirred in lieu of grapes. Those will come, surely, and will be scooped lazily onto toast in these hot summer days, and will satisfy my rare craving for animal based proteins. But for now, start here, with the classic, and let Ina show you how its done.
Ina Garten's Chicken Salad Veronique
- 4 split (2 whole) chicken breasts, bone-in, skin-on
- Good olive oil
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 cup good mayonnaise
- 1 1/2 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon leaves
- 1 cup small-diced celery (2 stalks)
- 1 cup green grapes, cut in 1/2
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
1. Place the chicken breasts, skin side up, on a sheet pan and rub them with olive oil. Sprinkle generously with salt and pepper. Roast for 35 to 40 minutes, until the chicken is cooked through. Set aside until cool.
2. When the chicken is cool, remove the meat from the bones and discard the skin and bones. Cut the chicken into a 3/4-inch dice. Place the chicken in a bowl; add the mayonnaise, tarragon leaves, celery, grapes, 1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons salt, and 1 teaspoon pepper and toss well.
Notes: I mistakenly bought skinless, boneless chicken breasts. When I baked them, I simply butterflied the breasts, rubbed both sides with olive oil, salt, and pepper, and baked them at 350 for about 25 minutes. Butterflying the chicken breasts significantly reduced the cooking time, so I suggest this technique if you're in a hurry!