Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Tarragon Chicken Salad with Pecans, Apples, and Grapes

Spring! How you taunt me with your fleeting glimpses, then crush me on the day of your official arrival with a random dusting of snow. At the farmers market, the yearning echoes: bright tulips and daffodils raise expectation, but upon closer look,  the produce status quo is the same dirt-covered root vegetables we've seen the past four months.

But we are getting there! I can gleefully report that new herbs, spinach, and the first crop of peas have landed at the Union Square Greenmarket, and I am frenzied with anticipation to start cooking for warmer weather. In fact, I started early just last weekend with this Tarragon Chicken Salad with Pecans, Apples, and Grapes recipe. Because in my book, nothing says spring like a fresh tarragon sprig.

Cooking with herbs is a great way to jumpstart the arrival of spring—culinarily-speaking, that is. I encourage you to wait for the arrival of seasonal gems like asparagus, peas, rhubarb, and strawberries to greet them in their local element, the tastes will be unparalleled. Instead, conjure freshness with a smattering of fresh herbs. It's amazing what a tablespoon of tarragon, dill or chives can do to vivify a dish.

Spring also signifies the arrival of lighter fare: room-temperature, heaping-ingredient salads (my favorite!) eaten unhurriedly on an outside patio or picnic.  (Says the girl who lives in a patioless NYC apartment and is always in a hurry... I can dream). Said salads dotted with fresh fruit and nuts are always winners, and while you might chide chicken salad as pedestrian—even this waldorf variation—the tarragon, lemon juice and curry powder add really nice depth. As someone who hates mayonnaise, it's surprising how much I love chicken salad, but the key for me is go mayo-light and substitute part of it for plain Greek yogurt (or use one that's canola oil-based, it smells less).

Yet I reserve the ultimate praise for the one ingredient I have yet to mention: the chicken. Because—drumroll, por favor— only now, thanks to this recipe, did I discover the phenomenon of brining chicken! How I was not cognizant of this method for years, chewing rubbery, dry chicken with the patience of a piece of gum, I do not know. Brining the chicken breasts (which is also easy, I promise; doesn't the word sound complicated, like investing?) ensures your chicken is impossibly juicy and moist, a key distinction separating the good chicken salads (curry powder! light mayo! herbs! hooray!) from the bad (too much mayo, rubbery chicken, boo).

If you don't like chicken salad, I can't help you, and this recipe won't make you a convert. If you do like it, this recipe is wonderful representation of all this dish can offer—and a healthful one (if you use light mayo) at that, too. Springtime cooking, commence!

Tarragon Chicken Salad with Pecans, Apples, and Grapes (adapted loosely from Smitten Kitchen)
Serves 4

~1 3/4 lb boneless, skinless chicken breasts (chicken breast tenders work well)
½ c walnuts or pecans, toasted and chopped
4 celery ribs, diced 
2 tbsp finely chopped shallot
1 c purple grapes, halved
1 ½ c granny smith apple, diced
1/2 to 2/3 c light or canola oil-based mayonnaise (or a combo of mayo and plain Greek yogurt)
3 tbsp champagne or white wine vinegar
juice of 1 lemon
2 tbsp finely chopped fresh tarragon
1 tbsp minced parsley
½ tsp curry powder (optional)
½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon black pepper
Accompaniments for serving: romaine lettuce, sliced tomato, sliced cucumber, multigrain bread or rolls

1. Brine chicken. In a large ziplock bag, combine 2 tbsp table salt with 2 cups of water. Add chicken, release air out, and store, closed, in refrigerator for 30 minutes.
2. Drain, rinse, and pat chicken dry. Heat 2 tsp of oil in a nonstick skillet and cook chicken, about 4 to 6 minutes on each side (less for tenders), or until meat is no longer pink and the juices run clear.
3. When chicken has cooled, chop into ½ inch cubes. Place chicken in a large bowl, and add all other ingredients. Mix thoroughly. Adjust seasonings before serving.

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