This time of year, I seek recipes for dishes that don't demand punctuality, but are meant to be easy and enjoyed whenever we're ready. No need to go rushing back home from the lake or tennis courts; let lunch or dinner wait for you.
Chicken salad is one such dish. Though often overlooked because it's so familiar, chicken salad can be assembled early in the cool morning hours or readied at the last minute. Even when made a day ahead, it will hold without harm to its flavor or texture. Dressed with a vibrant sauce, chicken salad is delicious served warm, room temperature or chilled. For me, tossing together this simple dish is quicker than prepping and lighting the grill.
The key to a great chicken salad is the perfectly cooked breast meat. Some books will tell you that rotisserie chicken will work well, but I've found it to be stringy and dry. Plus, dark meat seems out of place, as it's just too heavy and dense. A whole chicken breast from a nicely roasted chicken is great.
The best choice, though, is a perfectly poached chicken breast. All you need is a heavy pot (enameled is ideal). The easiest method in the recipe below was inspired by the late Barbara Tropp, an award-winning California chef renowned for her Chinese cuisine and author of the "China Moon Cookbook." The chicken is placed in boiling water with the heat just turned off. The chicken will poach over time in the steady residual heat.
Salad purists insist that the cooked meat must be hand-shredded, not diced, because the rough edges are better at absorbing the dressing.
A good mayonnaise is critical. While the homemade version is always best, I've found Mrs. Clark's Mayonnaise, which is free of sweeteners, to be the closest to anything I've made from scratch. (Hellman's is my second choice, but heavier-bodied than Mrs. Clark's, and a tad sweet.) Plain yogurt whisked into the mayonnaise gives the dressing a pleasant tang.
Chicken salad is a canvas for the adventurous cook. I've enjoyed splendid versions with chopped grapes, toasted nuts, candied ginger, or chutney. Some cooks prefer savory options with pickles, olives, sharp mustard or horseradish and lots of fresh herbs.
To me, chopped celery and green onions are essential. Served on a bed of microgreens or a thick slab of rye bread, chicken salad is the perfect lunch, even if it happens to be served for a casual evening meal.
Beth Dooley is the author of "In Winter's Kitchen." Find her at bethdooleyskitchen.com.