Your whole life, chicken salad has been there for you. When you had leftover chicken, drying out in the refrigerator, and no appetite for it, ol' chicken salad was there to make it interesting and appetizing again. Ol' reliable. Silent and steady and dependable. A closer.
Needless to say, you have never given chicken salad a thank-you card for this. No indeed: You have never given it anything but dry old chicken and a mandate to please you with it. You selfish bastard. How can you live with yourself. It is time for you to do right by chicken salad.
That means, just this one time at least, making chicken salad as a first resort, rather than the last one. Making chicken for chicken salad. Fresh chicken! Freshly cooked chicken! It's only right. You owe it, not to chicken salad—which, after all, despite the elaborate guilt-trip we've constructed here, is just a bunch of hacked-up chicken with other stuff mixed into it, and not a spurned lover—but to yourself.
Because, holy shit, it's so good. Let's make some.
The first thing to do is make a fire in your grill. This needn't be Wrath of God-hot, like when you grilled big chicken breasts. You know your grill better than I do, presumably; whatever configuration gets it to a state you'd describe as "medium-hot" is the one to go with. If it is hot enough to melt your wedding ring, why would you even think of that, you should be in counseling or something. Also that is too hot for chicken salad.
While your grill heats up and—if you are using charcoal—retreating into the coals, season some boneless, skinless chicken thighs. This entails dumping them into one of those sturdy one-gallon freezer bags, adding hearty pinches of salt, ground cumin, and paprika (smoked or sweet or whatever, suit yourself), and then pouring in a glug or two of oil and kinda kneading the outside of the bag with your hands to get the spices distributed over everything.
As for how many chicken thighs: maybe two pounds of 'em? Sure. They'll shrink quite a bit during cooking, so don't look at two pounds of uncooked chicken thigh and scoff that that's too much chicken, unless you're making chicken salad only for yourself, like a sad weirdo.
The ratio of chicken to people eating chicken salad will depend to a large degree on how you serve that eventual chicken salad, of course. If you're planning on serving it between slices of hearty bread, for example, it'll go a bit further than if you're planning to, say, fire it out of a trebuchet, because the bread is more filling than watching a portion of chicken salad go sailing over the distant horizon. (Later on, down toward the bottom of this article, we'll recommend a serving vehicle that is both less filling than bread and also a hundred times more infuriating to the durr man food for men set.)
In any case, plan on each pound of uncooked chicken thigh producing enough chicken salad for no more than three people, and probably fewer, depending on their feelings about mayo, which will determine whether you were right to make food for them in the first place, rather than chasing them into the woods with a torch.
Eventually your grill will be ready for cooking. Grill the chicken thighs for, oh, maybe five minutes per side over medium-hot coals, until they're sizzling and browned and grilled-looking on both sides and have shrunk enough to make you regret having blown off the previous three paragraphs. That may take more or less than five minutes, depending on your grill and whether you remembered to make a fire in it. Whenever they're done cooking, get the chicken thighs off the grill and set 'em aside to cool for a few minutes.
While the chicken cools, chop some vegetation. Maybe you have your own Special Signature Chicken Salad Vegetable Blend® that you use to make your Special Signature Chicken Salad®; if so, use that, and your chicken salad will be Signature Tasting®. If not: finely chop one celery stalk per pound of chicken; slice a few scallions into thin rings; do the same with a handful of chives*; chop a big fistful of your leafy herb of choice (more on this in a second) as finely as you can before you spike the knife into the trash and scream oh fuck this loudly enough to break windows**. If you want to include some other stuff, bell pepper or carrot or cucumber or nacho cheese or whatever, go for it, but it's also OK to stop there.
*Wait a damn minute, you are thinking—scallions and chives? That's two kinds of green onion! Yes, that's true. They're not redundant, though. Scallions will add a bright, fresh, sweet onion flavor to your chicken salad; chives, weirdly, will impart a mild, understated umami-ness that mostly will make everything else in the chicken salad taste better. Please just do it, OK? OK.
**We all see you over there eyeballing your food processor and wondering whether you couldn't just use that to chop your vegetables. Don't. That will turn your vegetables into a wet slurry and make your chicken salad gross. Use a big sharp knife.
A word on herbs. The very nice thing about chicken is that, since it tastes like chicken, it goes pretty well with just about any of the familiar herbs. This means that, if you have a favorite herb that you'd like to use in your chicken salad, you probably can go right ahead and do that, and your chicken salad will taste great. Tarragon is lovely in chicken salad; so are parsley, dill, oregano, and even mint. Thyme is a huge pain in the ass, what with removing the leaves from the stems and then attempting to herd those tiny little leaves into a group so that they may be chopped, but thyme is wonderful with chicken, if you have the patience for all that.
On the other hand, basil and cilantro, though wonderful in a general kind of way, will each tend to overwhelm everything else in your chicken salad. Sage, while not as powerful as those two, will make your chicken salad taste like Thanksgiving, which is a fine thing for a poultry preparation to taste like in November, and a bummer of a thing for a poultry preparation to taste like in July.
If what you'd like is for an internet food person to just come the fuck out and tell you what herb to use, fine, dammit, use some flat-leaf parsley, ya big jerk.
By now the chicken has cooled a bit; you can touch it without blistering your fingertips, anyway. Chop the chicken into the smallest chunks you have patience for—if you can get 'em smaller than the diameter of a dime, that's great; if you can get 'em smaller than the diameter of a quarter, that's less great but still fine; if you think you're done chopping just because they're smaller than the diameter of the chicken they came from, I am very sorry but that is not going to do it.
Slice each chicken thigh lengthwise into some strips; turn these 90 degrees on the cutting board and cut 'em into chunks. Dump the chunks into a big bowl. There. That wasn't so hard.
And now, assemble chicken salad. Chuck the chopped vegetation onto the chicken in the big bowl; add a scoop each of real-deal, by-God mayonnaise and real-deal, by-God sour cream to the bowl; fold and toss everything together; eyeball it to decide if you've added enough mayo and sour cream to hold everything together as chicken salad or whether it's still basically just moderately sticky chicken-and-vegetable mulch; add some more mayo and sour cream if necessary, until you've got—hey, lookit!—chicken salad.
Taste it. It needs salt. Add a pinch of salt, and some freshly cracked black pepper; fold and stir and toss; taste again. Whoa! Where did your shirt go! That is enough salt.
The last things to add to your chicken salad are a sheet of plastic wrap or aluminum foil over the top, and at least a half-hour of refrigeration. This will allow the flavors—chicken and onion and celery and so on—to stretch out and tangle together and enrich each other. This will allow your chicken salad to become, in a word, supermegaturboultranice.
Your chicken salad is ready. But are you???????
So, about serving that chicken salad. You are of course free to scoop this stuff onto a piece of bread, smash another piece of bread on top of that, and fire it down. That is a lovely way to eat chicken salad, and no one will judge you for it, unless you are doing it pantsless in a train station.
On the other hand, if you really want your chicken salad to shine, ditch the bread, which will mostly dilute the flavors, and serve your chicken salad scooped into upturned leaves of bibb lettuce. If you have some good tomatoes, dice 'em and toss 'em in there, too; likewise cucumber slices, alfalfa sprouts, or even some shredded cabbage. These are mild, unobtrusive flavors that will accent the chicken salad and add texture to it, without diluting it or overshadowing it. You know what else is a good flavor to go with your chicken salad? Beer! Lots and lots of very cold beer.
Pinch the lettuce leaf shut at the top and ferry it to your mouth. A little lettuce taco! It's adora—oh. Mmmmmmm. Savory and bright and smooth and fresh-tasting, just a hint of carbon-y edge from the grill, the crunch of the vegetables alerting your senses so the flavor can bowl them over. Oh man. Have another. You can figure out what to do with the leftovers later, since you can't make chicken salad with them.
Psych! There will be no leftovers.
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Image by Sam Woolley.
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