Most of us lead busy lives these days, or at least that’s what we tell ourselves as an excuse not to spend an hour or so in the kitchen when we get back home.
I’m as guilty as anyone in being lazy on occasions, and especially on the days when I’ve been at the café. Sometimes it all feels very ‘coals to Newcastle’, and I don’t want to face chopping another onion.
At such times, we all phone the local take-away or default to our go-to dishes.
These are the core recipes for which we don’t need to consult any notebooks, the ones we know like Grandma knew her scone recipe and it seemed like magic as she whipped up batch after identical batch without weighing a single ingredient.
I have a few absolutely nailed-on recipes I default to in those ‘can’t be bothered’ moments, and they have saved many a dinner. A slab of belly pork, slow-roasted with a little salt and pepper.
A thick rib-eye steak with oven-roasted tomatoes. Packet noodles thrown into a medley of stir-fried veg and a jar of black bean sauce.
Spaghetti with a simple tomato sauce knocked-up in minutes.
But perhaps the dish I’ve eaten the most in my life – amazing to think how many times I’ve eaten this in my lifetime – is chicken salad.
In myriad variations, the combination of a nicely-seasoned chicken and some well-dressed salad leaves never seems to get boring, and is something I can do with my eyes closed and brain well and truly switched off.
You probably have your favourite versions of the same dish – for me, it’s a lemon squeezed over the skin, the halves chucked in the cavity, a sprinkle of olive oil, black pepper, salt and a dusting of my favourite Portuguese dried oregano, then a slow-ish roast until golden.
Carved over a salad of sweet and bitter leaves, some ripe tomatoes and occasionally some diced avocado, it’s a soul-satisfying and reasonably healthy supper.
Human nature dictates that people must always create a hierarchy, that something has to be ‘the best’, and it’s been decided (without my participation, I might huffily add) that the best chicken salad in the world is served at the famous Zuni Café on Market Street in San Francisco.
The instant I read this, I was determined to try this amazing salad for myself.
My wife pointed out what would happen if I flew on my own to the west coast of America just for a plate of chicken, so I looked up a recipe online and decided instead to have a go in my own kitchen.
And you know, it’s not half bad.
I can’t say with conviction that it’s the best in the world, as I’ve not eaten them all, but it is certainly a lovely dish, and I present it here with a few personal tweaks.
For sure, I’ll be stuffing the skin with herbs from now on, as it really works well, and I love the idea of the half-soggy, half-crunchy bread, which I reckon would work in many salads.
A note before we start; this dish takes a couple of days to prepare, so have a read through first before getting excited.
A Chicken Salad
(serves two – four)
For the chicken:
One free-range chicken, about 1kg
A few sprigs of fresh sage, thyme, rosemary, tarragon, chives and parsley
A little olive oil
Maldon salt and freshly-ground black pepper
A splash of white wine
For the salad:
250g good white bread, crusts removed and torn into rough pieces
Extra virgin olive oil
Two tablespoons white wine vinegar
One tablespoon golden raisins
A splash of red wine vinegar
One tablespoon warm water
Two tablespoons pine nuts
Three garlic cloves, finely sliced
Four spring onions, finely shredded
100ml warm chicken stock
A few handfuls salad leaves (gems, rocket, watercress, oakleaf, frisée etc.)
270g punnet ripe cherry tomatoes
Maldon salt and freshly-ground black pepper
A few fresh herbs (parsley, tarragon, chives) for garnish
A day before you cook the chicken, you must prepare it a little. Using some kitchen roll, pat the chicken dry inside and out. Pop in the fridge on a tray, uncovered, for a couple of hours – this helps dry the skin, making for a darker, crisper roast. Slide a finger gently under the skin of each of the breasts, carefully working the skin loose without tearing it. Then work the tip of your finger around the thickest section of each
thigh, where it meets the backbone, loosening the skin in the same way. Make a small helpful slit with a sharp knife if you need to.
Chop the herbs roughly and moisten the mixture with a little olive oil. Gently push the chopped herbs into each of the loosened areas, spreading them out as evenly as possible. Halve the lemon, squeeze over the
bird, and push both halves into the cavity, along with any remaining herbs. Season the chicken liberally all over with salt and pepper. Cover loosely with clingfilm and refrigerate for at least 24 hours, so the herbs may work their magic.
The next day, prepare the bread salad; toast the pine nuts in a dry pan until golden, and set aside. Place the raisins in a small bowl and add the red wine vinegar and warm water. Set them aside to plump up. Preheat the oven to 240°C / Gas 9. Toast the bread pieces until just coloured all over. Whisk about 60ml of the olive oil with the white wine vinegar and season with salt and pepper to taste. Toss the bread loosely in the vinaigrette, add the pine nuts and set aside.
Place a spoonful of the olive oil in a small pan, add the garlic and spring onions, and cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until nicely softened. Tip into the bread and fold to combine. Drain the plumped raisins and also add to the bread. Drizzle the chicken stock over the salad and fold again, then tip the whole lot into a suitable ovenproof dish. Cover with foil, and warm through as the chicken finishes roasting for the final 20 minutes or so.
To cook the chicken, set the bird, breast side up, in a baking tray, and roast for about 30 minutes, then turn down the heat to 190ºC / Gas 5, flip the bird over and roast for a further 20 minutes. Flip the bird back to breast-side-up, and roast for another 20-30 minutes, or until the bird is cooked through, and the juices run clear from the thickest part of the thigh when pierced with a skewer or the point of a knife. Remove the chicken from the oven and turn off the heat, leaving the bread salad to continue warming in the oven. Slash the chicken all over and baste with the roasting juices several times. Cover loosely with foil as you finish the salad.
On a suitable serving dish, strew your greenery and dot with halved cherry tomatoes. Spoon over the dressed bread pieces. Carve the chicken into appetising chunks and nestle into the salad. Finally, warm the roasting juices and drizzle over, finishing with a handful of freshly-chopped herbs.