July 24, 2014

Lynnelle's Chicken Salad

We all know cooks who can just make things. No script, no measuring, just experience and instinct. As much as that sort of free cooking baffles little ol' anal, ahem, precise me, that's exactly how Lynnelle's amazing chicken salad came to be. No recipe, no precise measurements, just good taste and know-how.

Like many home cooks, my dear friend Lynnelle loves trying new things in the kitchen. In preparation for a Memorial Day picnic several years back, she decided on chicken salad: quick, easy, and portable. Using fresh ingredients she had on hand and her undeniably good palate, she inadvertently created what was (and still remains) the best chicken salad that I have ever had. 

Now keep in mind that, having lived in the South for nearly a decade, I have had plenty o' chicken salad. I often saw chicken salad presented by the most proper of Georgia peaches. Down South, chicken salad makes regular appearances at delicate showers, luncheons, and tea parties (yes, grown women still have those, wide-brimmed Sunday hats and all). It's no wonder this dish shows up so frequently; it's simply a classic. But if only those gentile Southerners knew that despite all their hospitality their (*caterers'*) chicken salad had been beat out by sweet ol' Lynnelle's--a Yankee, nonetheless!

After praising Lynnelle to high heaven for her creation, she modestly explained what all she had "thrown" into the salad. Had it not been for my foresight in immediately recording what she said, I may have never been able to recreate it. Thankfully, my scribbled list survives in my binder of recipe favorites, the tried and true stand-bys I wouldn't want to cook without. (Luckily, the scanner didn't pick up all the crumples and stains the paper has accumulated over the years!)

One of the big reasons this chicken salad is a gold standard for me is the fresh herbs. There is just no way of comparing the prepackaged dried herbs with ones freshly snipped. When Lynnelle brought her chicken salad to our picnic, it may have been the first time ever that I had tasted fresh thyme. I had already been converting to fresh herbs by that point, but since then fresh thyme has not left my side! Although I'm a huge fan of fresh parley and basil, the thyme really makes all the difference here. There is just something about those tiny little leaves that go so nicely with chicken. I've since used fresh thyme in my homemade chicken stock and even herbed dumplings. For those of you who haven't worked with fresh thyme before, I caution you that a little goes a long way. Whereas I heap chopped parsley and basil into dishes, I'm a little more conservative when it comes to thyme. As always, try it as you go along to see what quantity of fresh thyme tastes best to you.

Likewise, don't overdo the citrus. Start with a half (or even quarter) segment of lime or lemon, and taste from there. You want the fresh citrus juice to compliment the flavors, not overpower them.

While the flavor of Lynnelle's chicken salad is just out of this world, I have to concede that this recipe is especially, well, special since it comes from a close friend. Don't get me wrong--I'm convinced that anyone trying this will not regret it because it tastes that good! (And it makes me chuckle to think of ruffling some Southern feathers along the way.) The thing is there's just something special about hand-me-down recipes from loved ones. Sadly, Lynnelle and I don't live in the same city anymore, and I dearly miss her. Yet every time I open my recipe book, I'm reminded of the Memorial Day picnic, her love for classical music, times we laughed and cried together. Each time I make chicken salad, strange as it may seem, I think of her. After all, it's the emotional connection that keeps so many of us in the kitchen, slavng over that certain dish or craving that certain food. Through cooking, I connect to my loved ones time and time again and keep their memories alive. So it is that I can take Lynnelle with me wherever I move by simply remembering her recipe.

With all that said, I dedicate this post to Lynnelle and the precious baby girl she will soon meet. I wish you both the best, and I know that you will make countless memories together as daughter gleans skill and talent from mommy. And maybe you, too, can make a crack or two about certain geographical regions of the U.S. in the process. My love and prayers are with you!

Lynnelle's Chicken Salad

As with all things, adapt this recipe to your taste. Choose which parts of the chicken to shred based on your preference, breast for white meat or legs for dark. Although Lynnelle sticks to Whole Foods' mayonnaise, I've found for myself that just about any mayo will do--more if you prefer a creamier salad, less if you prefer it drier. The recipe easily doubles by using the remainder of the rotisserie chicken.

Rotisserie chicken
2 tablespoons good quality mayonnaise or to taste
1 stalk of celery, diced
2 green onions, chopped
2 to 3 teaspoons minced fresh basil
1 teaspoon minced fresh parsley
1/2 to 1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves pulled from stem 
Dash of prepared horseradish
Squeeze of a fresh lemon or lime, to taste
Salt and pepper to taste

Shred meat from rotisserie chicken until you have about 2 cups of shredded chicken; reserve remaining rotisserie for another use. (The leftover carcass from a rotisserie chickens can be used to make a fantastic homemade chicken stock!)

Place shredded chicken in a large bowl. Fold in mayonnaise until chicken is moist. Fold in next five ingredients (through thyme), mixing until vegetables and herbs are evenly incorporated throughout salad.

Season to taste with horseradish, lime juice, and salt and pepper. Serve immediately or refrigerate up to 2 days in advance. Croissants or crackers and a mixed salad of choice make nice accompaniments. Yield: 4 (approx. 1/2 cup) servings

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