Poached chicken salad

Gently cooking the bird makes for super-tender meat and a lovely broth besides

Published January 16, 2010 1:20AM (EST)

Recipe corrected
; it makes roughly 2 quarts of broth, not 1, and approximate cooking times corrected

When I think of chicken salad, I imagine petite china plates, dining under parasols on prim lawns with lace gloves, iced tea and sterling silverware. It's like a scene from an '80s Zalman King movie, and somewhere, past the delicate crunch of the chicken in lettuce cups and the genteel sounds of croquet, the lady of the house is getting it on with her sexy gardener.

OK, sorry -- overshare?

Anyway, my point is that chicken salad can seem a bit fusty, but really, it's kind of hot. It's one of my favorite things to make, because if you start by poaching the chicken, it becomes a food that gives you more than what you put into it.

We don't poach enough, overly obsessed with ass-kicking cooking like searing, grilling and roasting. I love the brown and crusty too, but don't snooze on clean, clear flavors and tender, succulent meat. These are the pleasures of poaching. And with one big bonus: The poaching liquid turns into a deep broth that becomes the foundation for soups or sauces, so you'll get lunch ready, and have a head start on dinner.

I'll leave the particulars of how to dress your chicken salad up to you: For some, it's an avian vehicle for mayonnaise. For others, it's lean and mean. I'll share one of my favorite, simple versions below, but really it's about the method and technique.

Poached chicken salad

Serves four, plus makes about 2 quarts of broth

1 3-pound chicken, cut into 8 parts on the bone
(or 2 breasts, legs and thighs)
2 ribs of celery, cut into ¼-inch dice
½ medium onion, cut into ¼-inch dice
Worcestershire sauce
Dijon mustard
Salt and pepper
Aleppo or cayenne pepper

Optional (for a more complex broth):

1 large onion, cut into 1-inch dice
1 medium carrot, cut into ½-inch pieces
1 rib of celery, cut into ½-inch pieces
1 clove garlic, crushed
3 parsley stems
5 black peppercorns, whole

  1. First do some play-acting. Put the chicken pieces in a heavy pot, preferably one big enough to fit them in without having to stack more than 2 pieces high. Fill the pot with cold water to cover the chicken by 1½ inches. Take the chicken out; what's left is how much water you'll use.
  2. Take the skin and any obvious pockets of fat off the chicken. I love chicken fat as much as anyone, but when poaching it'll just float on top of the liquid and make for greasy broth. (Don't throw it out, though ... make chicken crackins!) Generously sprinkle salt and pepper all over the chicken parts.
  3. If you're being (slightly) fancy and using the optional ingredients, pour off the water in the pot into a bowl and dry out the pot. Melt about a teaspoon of the chicken fat over medium heat, add the vegetables and cook, stirring, as they sweat. When the onions are translucent and softened, add the water, bring to a boil, and turn down to a simmer, covered. Let the vegetables cook for about 20 minutes, until they're soft.
  4. If you're not using the optional ingredients, bring the water to a boil, and turn it down to a simmer.
  5. Now get your poach on: Slip the dark meat in the water, then arrange the breast pieces on top. Make sure all the parts are completely submerged. The chicken will cool the water down significantly, so just let it gently come back up and maintain it at poaching temperature, which is about 170 degrees on a thermometer. By sight, that's the point at which you will see light but definite steaming and just a little shivering at the surface of the water. There should be no bubbles forming. Occasionally slightly lift or move the chicken so that no pieces are sitting too squarely on one another, blocking the hot water from getting to it. Poach until the chicken is just cooked through; the juices run clear when you cut into it near the bone. Check it after 15 minutes. Depending on the thickness, breasts may be finished then, but thighs and legs may take 30 minutes or more, if they are connected to one another. Overcooking is not a very serious issue, because the water temperature is so gentle, so you don't to be maniacal about getting it out of the pot right away.
  6. Remove chicken to a pan to cool, moistening with a few spoonfuls of broth, and scoop out the vegetables from the pot. When the chicken is just cool enough to handle, take it off the bone and return the bones to the broth, cover and simmer for another 30 minutes, up to a couple hours. Give the broth a taste. Isn't it good? Simple, maybe, but sweet and clear. Strain it, let it cool fully, and use it as you would any broth or stock.
  7. Time for your salad: When the chicken meat is cool, cut it into ½-inch dice and combine in a bowl with the diced onion and celery. Season it to taste with salt, pepper, a pinch of cayenne or Aleppo pepper (have you had this? Amazing -- fruity, a little sweet , a little tart, and a little hot. And a beautiful deep red), Worcestershire (I like 5 or 6 dashes), mustard (about a teaspoon), and as much mayo as you see fit. I'm smart enough to never get in the way of someone's mayonnaise preference. 

By Francis Lam

Francis Lam is Features Editor at Gilt Taste, provides color commentary for the Cooking Channel show Food(ography), and tweets at @francis_lam.

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