Thai Chicken Salad
This winter has been so hard, with the unrelenting cold and storm after storm as Nor-easters barrel up the coast as if they are on a regular weekly schedule. My cabin-fever is running about 103° and comfort food isn’t comforting me any more. Right now I need a taste of summer, to help me hold on till winter breaks its grip and I can walk on the sand along the beach again and bask in the warmth of the sun. Damn, it hurts to even think of it, while another storm is brewing up outside as I write.
So, to provide this taste of summer I have never needed so badly, I decided to make one of my favorite dishes, one of the few that I make consistently, the same way every time, and make often, because it is, quite simply, one of my favorite foods ever and it is perfect as it is.* The dish is Thai Chicken Salad, and it is the perfect summer food, the only things that rival it, for a picnic on the beach or on my boat on a hot sunny summer day, are Tabouleh, and Bahamian Conch Salad (really a conch ceviche’). I will be getting to those recipes soon, but I think I may have to save them, for when I need a reminder of summer again, June is still far off, and April is the cruelest month, as Prufrock said, because it tortures with the promise of summer, but then relapses into the harshness of winter.
Thai chicken salad is simply the perfect summer food; it is cold, crisp, light, spicy, tart, tingly, as refreshing as a crisp cold pilsner on a hot afternoon (and a crisp cold tart pilsner, say a Bitburger, would be perfect with this). Much of Thai cuisine is based on balancing five essential flavor components; sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and hot (spicy). In this dish, the balancing results in a tingling, refreshing piquancy, a startlingly lively taste, and a perfect crunchy-chewy texture that cools you down if you are out in the sun. This dish brings to mind the taste of sea-salt and sweat on your skin, the texture of the beach sand, the heat of the sun, and the sweetness of coconut oil, the smells and flavors and sensations of the beach. It is light, low in calories (always welcome, to help preserve our beach-bodies, as much as can reasonably be achieved, anyway, while still enjoying life) and it doesn’t leave you full or torpid from the effort of digestion. Trust me, taste this, and you will see, it’s the perfect summer-beach-bonfire-boating-picnic food, this chicken salad, served on lettuce leaves, with some kind of a crisp to crunch on, and ice-cold beer, nothing more is needed.
The first step is to grind boneless skinless chicken breasts. There is no way around this, the ground chicken you can get in a grocery store is ground to a pulp, its yucky. I use the grinder attachment on my “immortal beloved” Kitchenaid, with the coarse cutting plate. This results, strangely enough, in a coarsely ground texture, with noticeable, identifiable chunks of chicken. If you don’t have a grinder, you could mince the chicken breasts with a knife, you can get the perfect texture this way, too, but, if you are making a lot, you will also get blisters. I have never tried with a food processor, it might work, I find that if you go for a coarse-ground texture in the food processor, you won’t get uniformity, you will get some very large chunks, and some tiny shreds, along with the perfect coarse-ground pieces. Whatever you do, don’t chop up cooked chicken breast, it will be nothing like its supposed to be. Grind the chicken raw.
(I even cleaned up the Kitchenaid for this picture!)
The next step is to cook the chicken, I use a wok, and a little oil, its not too critical, I prefer to be able to say I stir-fried it, but in the end a lot of liquid comes out, and the chicken is half-poached anyway. Just don’t scorch it and don’t boil it or overcook it, the texture of the dish is a result of the coarse grind, more than the cooking method.
This is a crunchy , savory salad with just so many flavors, its like a party in your mouth (I’m not gonna say it, its taking all my willpower, but I’m just not gonna say it, this is a family blog; there may be double, triple, and quadruple entendres in every other sentence, but I am not gonna go overt on this one). All the ingredients are chopped to about the same size as the ground chicken pieces, about 1/3 to ¼ inch squares or parallelograms (see, there is a use for geometry in real life). There is celery, carrots, sweet red peppers, sweet yellow peppers, if you have them, mildly spicy green santa fe peppers, and spicy fresh jalapenos (diced much much finer). These components add the crisp in the texture, and some of the the sweet and some of the hot. This dish has so many flavors, combined in such complex ways, it’s a wonder it somehow fuses them all into one incredible, enjoyable sensation.
Finally, you chiffonade scallions and cilantro, and add two tablespoons of chopped fresh lemongrass, and a teaspoon of chopped fresh Thai hot chili. At this point, I am going to tell you the greatest little tip, this alone will make reading this worthehile: in Asian markets, they sell frozen blocks of chopped fresh lemongrass, with or without chili. Is this not the greatest?
These ingredients give a good part of the sour and bitter components to the dish.
Now comes the “dressing,” and this dish is a perfect example of one of the ways Asian cuisine is so different from classic European and American cooking, in its reliance on a vast array of condiments. This is over-simplifying, but western haute-cuisine tends to rely on building up complex flavors from scratch ingredients. We have all seen the old cliché’ of the French chef who is infuriated that the oafish customer wants to put ketchup on his creation, we view condiments as lowbrow, something for the ballpark, not the high table. But Asian cooking tends to make much more use of condiments, prepared sauces, of which there are an incredible array, and the art is in combining the right condiments, in the right amounts, to get the flavor you are seeking.
In this dish, I use fresh lime juice (you didn’t see nothing in no jar up there, capiche?), fish sauce, toasted sesame oil, and “cock sauce,” the only proper name for Srirache sauce.
The lime juice is bitter and tart, the fish sauce is “umame” (basically, this means “meaty”) and salty, the toasted sesame oil, which really isn’t a traditional Thai ingredient, but I love it in this, is just lovely, its just beautiful, and the cock sauce is both sweet and spicy. Finally, the last thing I add is usually toasted pine nuts, for just another kind of crunchy chewiness, but they recently went up to $22 a pound, and suddenly, I find I like these $2.99 a pound toasted pumpkin seeds just as much.
There it is, summer on a plate, a summer day at the beach, swimming in the water, baking in the sun, sweating breathing salt air and getting sand between your toes, all on a plate, right there. Here is the deal, make this dish one day in the summer, and take it to the beach and have a picnic lunch, eat this with a cold crisp German Pilsener. Then, the next winter, when the dark and the cold have you down, and you need a taste of the joy of summer, make this again, and you will find that Proust and his madeleines have nothing, compared to the evocative power of this amazing food.
* I have so many “favoritest ever” things, I have dozens and dozens of “favorite things in the world,” and so many things are “the best thing ever in the history of the universe.” On any given day, any one of about 200 songs might be my favorite song of all time, and that’s before I start breaking the universe of my most favorite songs ever into the hundreds of different categories of favorite song (for example, the category “favorite song about skinny-dipping that is so beautiful it could make you cry when it talks about the photo on the dashboard that reflects in the window whenever he drives under a streetlight and he sees her face again,” the winner in this category, of course, is Nightswimming, by REM). I get yelled at for having so many favorites, but I fail to see the harm, in loving so many things, in finding just sheer joy in so much in life. Fun is, after all, the best thing to have, what the French call “joie de vivre.” In the end, that’s what this blog, and life, is all about.