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Till now, I have not found a chicken salad I really liked. But, these days, a chef has to respond to the market and the market wants a salad — not some incy-wincy starter but a pile of assorted greens, grains and proteins that takes care of the job of eating for a while. Some salads — Niçoise, for example — fit the bill but some seem an exercise in monotony.
Much as I love chicken, chicken salad fails to float my boat. In my apprentice days, a chicken salad meant diced meat bound with mayonnaise, celery and possibly apple — tasty but rather old school. On the other hand, I have too much respect for Caesar salad to adulterate it with bits of grilled chicken. Bang bang chicken, with sugar, peanuts and chilli, is too saccharine for my taste. Those who wish to revive coronation chicken, with its bizarre blend of curry and apricot jam, cannot, alas, count me among them.
It is often assumed that a chicken salad is made with leftovers — it certainly used to be. Some consider salmagundi a distinguished dish. But I suspect they threw the kitchen sink at it, chucking in remnants and hoping that a liberal sloshing of salad cream, anchovies, capers and mustard would carry the day.
For a chicken salad that is not built on the salmagundi principle, the meat should be poached not roasted: it will be moist, biddable and able to soak up flavours and wed itself to a bigger conceit. The salad here began somewhere in the middle of Italy with crisp slices of fennel and then migrated south to Sicily to pick up a few sweet little tomatoes. By the time I had finished I was in the souk, adding spices, apricots and salt lemons. It may not be a salmagundi but it is definitely a bit of a hybrid.
Moroccan chicken salad with fennel, cherry tomatoes and salt lemons
After poaching, I usually put the bones and carcass back in the pot for an hour’s more cooking and an excellent stock. The salad will be a good lunch for at least six.
- Trim wing tips and feet of chicken and place all in a close-fitting saucepan. Cover with cold water and bring to a simmer. Add the onion, crushed garlic, spices and herbs and simmer the chicken very gently for one hour before leaving to cool in its own liquor.
- Trim the tops and bases of the fennel — keep the fronds for decorating the salad later — and cut them into very fine slices across the bulb (a mandoline is the best tool for the job). Soak them for half an hour in iced water. Halve the tomatoes and remove the pulp from the lemons, cutting the skin into long thin slivers. Slice the garlic very finely and chop the apricots quite finely as well.
- Roast the coriander, cumin and peppercorns in a dry pan until they release their aroma and put them into a mortar or spice grinder. Pound them well with the salt and, once fine, add the ginger, lemon juice and then the olive oil. Taste for seasoning.
- Remove the chicken from its juice and remove its skin (this can be salted, grilled and chopped as an extra refinement). Separate into joints and remove the bones before shredding the meat into long slivers. Place these in a large bowl, followed by the fennel, tomatoes, lemon and garlic. Add a couple of pinches of sea salt and toss together with two-thirds of the dressing. Sprinkle the apricots, fennel fronds and parsley leaves on top and add more dressing if required.
Photograph: Andy Sewell
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