A friend once said to me, starry-eyed as we ordered sandwiches at the counter of Murphy’s Deli in Atlanta, “There is just nothing better than chicken salad for lunch.” At the time, I couldn’t have disagreed more, as I shrugged, smiled and greedily devoured my Loaded Patty Melt. Why, I wondered, would anyone waste an opportunity for a flavor-forward, 6-inch-tall, do-not-attempt-this-at-home rhapsody on bread, and order chicken salad? Le yawn. Hello, there!
If you, like me (until recently, that is), are of the “chicken salad is chicken salad is chicken salad” viewpoint, allow me a moment, fellow epicureans. Nothing has ever consistently excited me less than the idea of chicken salad. Except maybe being offered an apple when absolutely ravenous. But, lo! This one is a game-changer, I assure you.
Samin Nosrat’s book “Salt Fat Acid Heat” is a culinary sacred writ. It has changed, for the better, the way I approach cooking, and her philosophy on food and preparation is as everlasting as it is accessible. So, when I stumbled onto her Sicilian Chicken Salad recipe, I was filled with both hope and anticipation. Maybe I’d finally found a version that would answer my above-posed query. Short story shorter: I had.
There is not much I can say about this particular adaptation, other than you really should try it. To date, it is the most requested, and remembered, dish I have made for large, buffet-style gatherings like Christmas, Easter, birthdays, Mother’s Day, Super Bowl, Friday-night-what-in-the-world-is-for-dinner-friends-are-on-their-way-over! … and on and on. There is a moderate amount of prep work involved, but that is the point. The flavor is considered and complex, and entirely worth the wee bit of extra effort, eschewing the mayonnaise-y, bland, one-dimensional lump that seems the accepted style. I have used cilantro in place of the parsley on occasion, have always used dried cranberries instead of currants, and substitute Hellmann’s for the aioli, but those are the only switch-ups ever attempted on this flawless recipe. If you’re feeling extra, a homemade roast chicken is by far the best option, but the old supermarket rotisserie hero works like a charm, making quicker work of the whole endeavor.
I hope you’ll make this dish soon and that it changes, or simply improves, your opinion of the ubiquitous, American classic, reimagining a sometimes-lackluster kitchen stalwart.
Sicilian Chicken Salad
½ medium red onion, diced
¼ cup red wine vinegar
½ cup currants
5 cups shredded roasted or poached chicken meat
1 cup stiff aioli
1 tsp. finely grated lemon zest
2 T. lemon juice
3 T. finely chopped parsley
½ cup pine nuts, lightly toasted
2 small celery stalks, diced
½ medium fennel bulb, diced (about ½ cup)
2 tsp. ground or chopped fennel seed
Combine the onion and vinegar in a small bowl and let sit for 15 minutes to macerate.
In a separate small bowl, submerge the currants in boiling water. Let them sit for 15 minutes to rehydrate and plum up. Drain and place in a large bowl.
Add the chicken, aioli, lemon zest, lemon juice, parsley, pine nuts, celery, fennel bulb, fennel seed, and two generous pinches of salt to the currants and stir to combine. Stir in the macerated onions (but not the vinegar) and taste. Adjust salt and add vinegar as needed.
Serve on toasted slices of crusty bread, or wrapped in leaves of romaine or lettuce.