I’ll be the first to admit that chicken salad isn’t always the most thrilling of dishes. It is often underseasoned, tasting mostly of mayonnaise and perhaps a few pieces of celery. Many pre-made chicken salads from the grocery store deli can be so gloppy that they manage to hold the shape of their plastic storage containers long after being slid out onto a plate.
So why, then, am I encouraging you to make chicken salad this week? Because it’s not difficult to make an exceptional version, and once that’s done, you can serve it for not only dinner but also lunch the next day. Call it a double 5:30 Challenge.
The secret to a better chicken salad is three-fold: First, hold back a bit on the mayonnaise. You certainly want to use enough to moisten your salad, but don’t go too crazy. (And do be sure to use a high-quality mayonnaise, such as Duke’s, for best results.) Second, don’t discount the importance of acidity. I like to use dill pickle brine, along with the pickles themselves. You get both the zippy crunch from the pickles and the bright acidity from the brine without any additional vinegar or lemon juice. Finally, don’t forget to add crunch. Many chicken salads get that texture from diced celery, but I find that the nuttiness from toasted walnuts brings a more satisfying complexity.
For the chicken itself, use diced meat from a plump rotisserie chicken. The freshest ones appear on grocery store shelves around lunchtime, but if you can’t time your trip in that way, simply poke around for the chicken that isn’t falling apart. When you’re ready to cook, all you need to do is remove the skin, pull the meat from the bones and chop it into bite sized pieces.
Toss the chicken, walnuts and pickles with a quick dressing of mayonnaise and pickle brine, along with plenty of salt and freshly ground black pepper. This salad is just fine served on regular sandwich bread, but for a slightly lighter and just-a-touch fancier meal, scoop it into Bibb lettuce leaves instead. You can make a sandwich with the leftovers tomorrow.