When my daughters were little and the mantle of hosting Christmas dinner passed to me, I made a determined vow that I was going to spend as much of the holidays with my family and as little of them fussing in the kitchen as possible. Christmas, in my opinion, should be for joyful chaos, not monitoring a large, temperamental piece of meat and several side dishes.
The holiday gods smiled on me the day they sent me the famous Zuni chicken salad, an outrageously flavorful dish that can easily scaled to the size of your crowd and mostly prepared in advance. It helps that it also mimics that poultry-and-stuffing-and-cranberries Thanksgiving vibe just enough to feel seasonally festive. For years, I would roast my chicken (or chickens) and toast the bread on Christmas Eve, and then just finish the final dish whenever we felt like wandering to the table on the big day. It was always a magnificent, easy hit.
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Now, I am lowering the bar even further. Last week, pretty much immediately after I turned in my final mountain of academic coursework for my semester, my mother died and my daughter was diagnosed with a breakthrough case of COVID. All the last minute holiday shopping and card sending, the picking up my other daughter from college, have been back burnered to make room for cremation and quarantine. And while I frankly would be fine eating a bowl of cereal over the sink and calling it a day, I am instead this December 25 going to rally just enough to do a cheat version of the California classic.
Maybe your 2021, and in particular your past week, have been in their own way a real kick in your pants too. For all of us, then, I offer this. The real Zuni chicken salad relies on its meticulous roasting technique and flawless ingredient list. My Sh_t Just Got Real version instead streamlines the steps considerably and uses whatever you've got and can make work. The final result is not as intense or rich as the original, but you can pull it together in about a half hour while crying, fielding multiple phone calls, or just staring into space and dissociating.
This dish still keeps Zuni's addictive crispy skin and warm dressing, making the whole thing very satisfying and deeply comforting. It's just the right combination of savory, sweet, salty and sharp to please everybody. And for right now, it's more than good enough. So go ahead and join me in half-assing it a little here, because one of the best gifts we can give each other this strange holiday season is the gentle promise of as much ease and grace as possible, shared with the ones we love, and granted for the ones we miss. Merry Christmas.
Zuni Christmas chicken salad
Makes 4 to 6 portions, with leftovers
- 1 rotisserie chicken
- 1 loaf of your favorite crusty bread (Sourdough is not recommended but I personally don't judge.)
- 1 bag of prewashed salad greens of your choice
- 1/2 cup of light olive oil
- 1 1/2 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar or whatever you've got
- 2 tablespoons of raisins or dried currants (or your preferred chopped, dried fruit like apricots)
- 2 tablespoons (or more, if you like) of pine nuts or other nuts you like
- 2 - 3 cloves of thinly sliced garlic
- 3 sliced scallions, green and white parts
- 2 tablespoons of your favorite broth, or white wine
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- Preheat your oven to 450°F.
- Shred your rotisserie chicken, reserving the skin.
- Tear the bread into rough 2 - 3-inch chunks. (You can cut the crust off the bread before tearing it so it soaks up the flavors better, but I like the crunchy-chewy contrast.) You'll want about 4 cups of bread chunks.
- Line two sheet pans with parchment.
- On pan one, stretch out your reserved chicken skin pieces and gently pat dry with a paper towel. Add a light sprinkle of salt and pepper. It will shrink, so you don't want to oversalt.
- To pan two, add your bread chunks. Drizzle with about 2 tablespoons of oil and toss to coat. If you're feeling like roasting your pine nuts, spread them out all together on one side of the pan.
- Roast your chicken skin, bread and nuts for about 10 minutes TOTAL. Check the nuts after about 2 minutes, and remove them as soon as they get a little browned. Flip the bread pieces after about 5 minutes to get golden all over, and then remove. The chicken skin should be crisp after 10 minutes, but if it needs a little longer, give it 2 or 3 more.
- When the chicken skin is done, remove to a separate plate and lightly crumble. You want little pieces, not chicken dust. Reserve any chicken drippings left in the pan. (There may not be much.)
- In a large pan over medium flame, heat 2 - 3 tablespoons of your oil. Lightly sweat your garlic and scallions, stirring constantly. Add your stock or wine, and then your raisins. The raisins will plump a little. Add any reserved chicken drippings you have.
- Remove the pan from the heat and add the remainder of your olive oil and your vinegar, along with salt and pepper to taste, and whisk. (I always like to add a pinch of sugar to any dressing for balance, but it's optional.) Taste your dressing and adjust the seasoning as necessary.
- Add the dressing to your bread and toss. Don't get overly enthusiastic, you want a mix of textures and flavors. Add your greens and your shredded chicken and toss again. Dish out onto a platter. Scatter your pine nuts and crispy chicken skin on top for a classy touch.
- Serve with the cake and cookies your nice friends sent you, because it's been a rough one.
Note: You can make the chicken, toasted bread and dressing the day before. And if crisping the chicken skin sounds like one more chore and one more pan to wash, feel free to skip it.
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