January 20, 2012

Quick and Easy Chicken Salad

Let's get something straight right up front.  When I say chicken salad, I'm not talking about tuna's equally gloppy cousin.  I'm talking about a healthy, vibrant green salad topped with juicy slices of chicken breast.  If you were expecting the other chicken salad, you'll have to look elsewhere. 

Now that we have that out of the way, let's turn our attention to the salad.  While the actual assembly of the salad is easy,  the quick part is relative.  To give our chicken the proper flavor (one that will allow us to eat the salad completely dressing free,) we have to prepare it at least several hours in advance.  You'll want a couple of boneless, skinless chicken breasts-one for every two people you plan to serve.  Poke them a couple of times on each side with a fork, and place them in a large Ziploc bag with a tablespoon of olive oil, the juice of one lemon, and a teaspoon of crushed red pepper flakes, plus a few dashes of salt, then stick them in your refrigerator to marinate.

For some reason black subbed in for red pepper in this picture.
About half an hour before you are hoping to eat it is time to get the vegetables ready.  While I'm a fairly open-minded eater, I want my salads to have the taste and texture I grew up with, so I generally stick with iceberg or romaine lettuce, coarsely chopped.  It takes about half of a head of fresh iceberg to provide enough roughage for four salads.  Since this is a main dish salad, I tend to skip the salad bowl and just divide up the portions as I go.  The other pieces you'll need at this point are tomatoes--one per salad for small romas--and olives.  It drives Wife crazy, but when I am using them for dishes like this I tend to consider it a waste of time to perfectly slice the olives; this is, after all, a simple dinner salad.  Unless you are preparing this for guests and presentation matters, just crumble them on top of the lettuce like they were clumps of feta cheese.  How many olives you want to use is really a matter of personal taste, but I've estimated it takes about six olives per salad to make sure you are getting some in each bite.  Cut each tomato into sixths, and place them into the bowls as well.  Once you've laid down this base, quarter a lemon and squeeze the juice of each slice onto a salad, being careful not to let any seeds fall into your food.  Add salt and fresh ground pepper to taste, and then toss.
Red bell peppers and grilled mushrooms could go here as well.
With the bottom half of the salad ready to go, it's time to cook the chicken.  You'll want to place, on medium heat, a skillet large enough to hold your chicken without the pieces touching.  When I prepared my salads, I started with the heat on high and then reduced it after I had gotten a nice char on each side, but I don't recommend this idea.  When I first began making this meal it was summer, and the chicken was always cooked on the grill (the ideal way to do it.)  While raising the heat of my pan did partially recreate the effect of grilling, the high heat coupled with the red pepper flakes still clinging to the chicken caused the pan to let off a thick smoke that was not unlike pepper spray.  I didn't mind-anything for flavor-but Wife and Boy let me know between jagged coughs that my tactic wasn't appreciated, and I had to open all the windows even though it was freezing outside just to accommodate their breathing.
Not as good as a grill char, but a nice color all the same.
You'll want to cook the chicken for several minutes on each side, until it is cooked through and not at all pink inside.  Since it's best not to mess with the meat too much aside from turning it, you can prep the ingredients that will go on top of the chicken while you wait.  Thinly slice a handful of green onions, both green and white parts.  Most recipes tend to want you to pick the tops (for garnish) or the bottoms (for flavor,) but both work well within the context of the salad and there is no reason to waste half of each shoot.  Set them aside, and roughly chop 1/4 cup of smoked almonds.  The almonds are really one of this salad's secret weapons.  In addition to providing a nice textural contrast to the vegetables, the smoky taste contributes to the flavor that makes this work without having to add any sort of dressing.  I just sort of hack at them with my knife and am satisfied with the irregular pieces I get, but if you dislike this you could probably get more even bits with a food processor, though it seems like too much work for a salad.  Finally, grate a 1/4 cup of Parmesan cheese.    

Once the chicken is cooked, move it to a cutting board.  Using a knife and tongs, slice it into bite-sized chunks and divide it equally among the salads, then top with the onions, almonds and cheese.  That's it.  The resulting salad will be full of flavor, filling, and incredibly healthy, and all in about fifteen minutes. 

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