A CHICKEN IN every salad bowl, that's the promise of summer. The chicken, after all, is so amenable. Its flesh is willing to be served hot or cold. It absorbs the blows of aggressive spices, is gentle enough to coddle mild seasonings, provides a complementary background to nearly any flavoring a cook might inflict on it. Inexpensive to being with, it remains useful to its last morsel. The bones produce stock, the fat proves an aromatic oil for cooking, the giblets add an enrichment for sauce, and the tiniest shreds can be gathered to garnish one last salad.
The best chicken salads, however, are planned from the beginning, the chicken purchased at its freshest, cooked to its most moist and seasoned to greatest advantage. Beyond that, the world divides into separate camps: Some insist on all white meat for a chicken salad (it is, after all, a handsome ivory background, and cuts into even chunks); others like the rich texture and fuller flavor of dark meat. There are those whose insist on meat diced small enough to smoothly mound on delicate bread, and others to advocate julienned chicken, not to mention some who think that pieces should be so big as to require knife and fork. And while most Americans identify chicken salad with mayonnaise, the Chinese certainly don't, and many another country has been eating chicken salad for centuries without even knowing of the existence of mayonnaise.
Mayonnaise, though obviously an asset to chicken salad, also can be its fatal falw. In the summer heat, mayonnaise salads can quickly spoil, so a chicken salad -- or any salad -- with mayonnaise must be kept refrigerated up to its serving time, rather an inconvenience on a picnic. There is one way out, however: Store-bought mayonnaise is balanced so that it alone is not prone to spoilage. Once it is mixed with other foods, however, it is as readily dangerous as homemade mayonnaise. So, to be safest on a picnic or for a summertime buffet, use store-bought mayonnaise for your salad, and mix it with the other ingredients at the last minute. Homemade mayonnaise is certainly a more delicious binder, however, thus is worth the extra care of keeping it refrigerated until serving time and returned to the refrigerator soon after serving, should there be any left.
Whatever style of chicken salad pleases you most, it will be enhanced by following two rules: Cook the chicken just until done (to tell if it is done, poke it with a fork to see that the jucies have no raw pink tinge remaining); overcooking will leave it unappetizingly dry. And toss it with seasonings while it is still hot, so they will be absorbed by the meat. The mayonnaise, of course, should not be added until the chicken is cold. But oil and vinegar or lemon plus herbs and spices will permeate still-warm chicken, seasoning it more throughly than they would when the chicken has cooled.
Here, then, are chicken salads both familiar and surprising, one for every day of the week. GOOD OLD FASHIONED CHICKEN SALAD (8 servings) 4-pound chicken, steamed or simmered for 3/4 hour or just until done 1/2 cup oil 2 tablespoons wine vinegar 1 teaspoon dijon mustard 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon pepper 3 stalks celery, diced 1/2 cup mayonnaise, or to taste 1 tablespoon capers Dash of hot sauce
As soon as chicken is cool enough to handle, remove bones and skin. Combine oil, vinegar, mustard, salt and pepper, and marinate chicken in the mixture, refrigerated, until well chilled. In the meantime, refrigerate diced celery in a bowl of ice water. When chicken is cold, cut into cubes. Drain celery and dry it well. Combine chicken, celery, mayonnaise, caspers and hot sauce. Adjust seasoning. Chill until served.
Variations: Add chopped fresh dill or tarragon, olives, hard-cooked eggs, raw green peas, or whatever your garden has to offer. CURRIED CHICKEN SALAD WITH FRUITS AND NUTS (4 servings) 4 chicken breasts, steamed for 10 to 15 minutes, just until cooked through 1 teaspoon curry powder 1/2 teaspoon salt Pepper to taste 1 tablespoon lemon juice 1 cup diced cantaloupe 1 cup seedless grapes 1/2 cup walnuts 2 tablespoons finely slivered candied ginger, or grated fresh ginger to taste. 1/4 cup sour cream or yogurt 1/2 cup mayonnaise
Bone and skin chicken breasts as soon as they are cool enough to handle. Cut into 1-inch cubes and toss with curry powder, salt, pepper and lemon juice. Refrigerate until cold.Combine chicken with cantaloupe, grapes, walnuts, ginger, sour cream or yogurt and mayonnaise. Refrigerate until served. MARINATED CHICKEN WITH ROSEMARY (4 servings) 4 chicken breasts, steamed for 10 to 15 minutes, just until cooked through Juice of 1/2 large lemon 1/4 cup olive oil 1 teaspoon rosemary, crushed Salt and pepper to taste 1 tomato, diced 1 green onion, diced
Skin and bone chicken breasts as soon as they are cool enough to handle. Dice. Toss with lemon juice, olive oil, rosemary, salt and pepper.Refrigerate until cold. Just before serving, toss with tomato and scallions. Adjust seasoning if necessary. GERMAINES CHICKEN AND ASPARAGUS WITH GINGER (4 to 6 servings as an appetizer) 2 chicken breasts 1 pound asparagus 1/4 cup soy sauce 1/4 cup worcestershire 1 tablespoon chopped fresh ginger 2 tablespoons chopped scallions, white part only 2 tablespoons sugar 2 tablespoons lime juice 1 chopped fresh hot red pepper (optional)
Cover chicken breasts with water and bring to a boil. Cover, turn off heat and let sit about 10 minutes, until cooked through. Bone and skin the chicken, shred the meat and set it aside.
Peel asparagus and drop into boiling salted water. Boil for 2 minutes. In the meantime, prepare a bowl of ice water. Remove asparagus from boiling water and drop into ice water until cool. Since on the diagonal, using only the tips. Reserve stalks for making soup.
Combine soy sauce, worcestershire, ginger, scallions, sugar, lime juice and optional red pepper in blender.
When ready to serve, arrange asparagus on a plate, top with chicken, then pour sauce over all. Chicken, snow peas and cucumber (4 servings) 1 pound boned chicken breast, skin removed 1 tablespoon vinegar 1 cucumber 1/4 pound snow peas Marinade: 2 tablespoons soy sauce 3 tablespoons Chinese sesame oil Dash of hot chili oil 1/2 to 1 teaspoon sugar 1 tablespoon sesame seeds, toasted (optional)
Cut chicken into thin slices about 1/4 inch thick. Dip into boiling water and remove after a few seconds. Drain well and sprinkle with a little vinegar. Halve and seed cucumber, and cut into thin slices. Sprinkle cucumber with salt and let sit for a half-hour to draw out water; rinse dry. Slice snow peas on the diagonal. Mix marinade ingredients and toss with chicken and vegetables. Refrigerate until serving time. MARICCA LUTZS BARBECUED CHICKEN SALAD (4 servings) 6 chicken breasts, boned and skinned Marinade: 1/4 cup oil 3/4 cup dry white wine 2 cloves garlic, minced 1 onion, finely chopped 1/2 teaspoon celery salt 1/2 teaspoon salt (optional) 3/4 teaspoon coarsely ground pepper 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon either thyme, tarragon or rosemary Pinch of dry mustard For salad: 1/2 cup chopped celery 1/4 cup chopped onion Salt and pepper Mayonnaise to moisten (optional) Bibb lettuce for garnish
Combine marinade ingredients and marinade chicken breasts at least 6 hours, turning occasionally. Reserve marinade. Grill chicken on charcoal if possible, until just cooked through but still moist. Dice in small cubes. Combine with celery, onion, salt and pepper and mayonnaise about 2 hours before serving. Mayonnaise dilutes the flavor of the barbecue; you can dress the salad with some of the marinade instead, if you prefer. Refrigerate until serving time. If combined too long before serving, the mayonnaise will separate. Serve on bibb lettuce. CHINESE COLD LEMON CHICKEN (6 servings) 4- to 5-pound chicken 7 dried Chines black mushrooms 3 tablespoons oil 1/4 cup finely shredded fresh ginger 1/3 cup seeded and julienned fresh red or green hot peppers (less if desired) 1/4 cup finely shredded lemon peel, just the yellow part 1/4 cup sugar 1/2 cup lemon juice Salt to taste 1 tablespoon grated lemon rind 2 teaspoons lemon extract
Steam chicken 1 hours and let cool in cooking liquid. Remove and strain the broth, reserving 1 cup. Remove breast meat from chicken and cut into bite-size pieces. Chop wings, legs and thighs with the bone into bite-size pieces.
While chicken is cooking, pour boiling water to cover mushrooms and let stand 1/2 hours. Drain and squeeze dry, cut out and discard tough stems.
Heat oil over high flame in a wok or skillet. Add mushrooms and ginger and cook about 30 seconds. Add hot peppers and lemon shreds, toss and add sugar. Add 1 cup reserved chicken broth, bring to a boil and add lemon juice and salt to taste. Add chicken pieces and cook just to heat through. Transfer chicken to serving dish. Add grated lemon and lemon extract to liquid and pur over chicken. Let cool to room temperature and serve. Adapted from Craig Claiborne and Virginia Lee's "The Chinese Cookbook"