I decided to come up with a chicken salad recipe I actually liked. I believe our friends liked it, too, but I can't guarantee anyone else will. Try it and see for yourself. :) (If you're just tuning in, that means don't take any of my food assertions in any of my instructables too seriously; life needs a little silliness and quirky opinions)
This is still a simple recipe with carefully balanced flavors and textures. I've included a detailed explanation of the flavor balancing, but I've posted it after the recipe for those who don't want to wade through it. Sometimes simple things are quite complex in the underlying details. I have a friend who hates just about every ingredient in this dish. Surprisingly, he loves this chicken salad.
Maybe balance is the key. Maybe I hate most chicken salad because every bite is such a disorganized jumble of mismatched textures and mediocre flavors. At any rate, this is the chicken salad I've come up with, and we have it fairly regularly. I've (carefully) estimated the amounts of ingredients; I don't tend to measure for this sort of thing.
1 regular grocery store rotisserie chicken (if it's the jumbo size, increase the other ingredients by half, especially the apple and celery)
1 fuji apple
1 asian apple-pear
2 stalks celery
1 C walnut pieces
1 t dried or a few sprigs fresh thyme, crumbled or finely chopped
1 cup finely shredded good quality parmesan cheese - check the rind for part of the stamped words "parmigiano reggiano"
4 T mayo
freshly ground black pepper
1 small shallot, very finely chopped (or 1 T dried onion flakes, not powder) - somewhat optional if you HATE onion flavor, but important in a subtle way
3/4 C Brianna's french vinaigrette, the kind with the artichoke illustration on the label (use more oil, champagne vinegar, and dried herbs if you skip this ingredient)
2 T decent quality extra virgin olive oil
2 T condiment type balsamic vinegar - the decent quality everyday stuff from manufacturers that also make the expensive aged stuff; make sure it's made with grape must that's been aged in wooden barrels and not flavored, colored white vinegar that can legally be called "balsamic vinegar" in the states due to fuzzy regulations
Have a friend chop the apples and celery. Squeeze half the lemon over the apples and cutting board before he finishes. Pull the chicken meat carefully from the bones and other less desirable connective tissue, shred it slightly, and coarsely chop the larger pieces. Put the chicken in a large bowl, large enough to stir the whole mixture later on without spilling.
Chop and gently toast the walnuts in a dry pan over medium heat, stirring often. Add the walnuts to the chicken. If your friend has finished chopping the apples and celery, add that stuff also.
Mix the mayo, olive oil, vinegar, vinaigrette, shallot, thyme, and black pepper together, either in a separate bowl, or right in the large bowl with the chicken. Squeeze the other half of the lemon (through a small strainer to catch seeds) into the sauce. I don't usually use a separate bowl, but I figured people could use pictures of the sauce in a separate bowl to see amounts.
Stir the sauce and the parmesan cheese into the chicken mixture. Taste it. Are the flavors balanced? If not, refer to the flavor profiles in the section below and add a little more of what's missing.
Serve on rolls or croissants.
Highly Opinionated, Insanely Detailed, Slightly Elitist Explanation of Separate Components and Flavor Balancing:
Chicken salad should, above all, taste like chicken. There's a reason I specified a rotisserie chicken for this. The bones have a whole lot of flavor, and cooking the meat with the bones makes tender, flavorful meat that actually tastes like chicken. Boneless skinless chicken breasts, which taste like a neutral meat flavored with whatever you cook them in, have their place... but their place is NOT in my chicken salad. The flavoring on the rotisserie chicken shouldn't matter much; most of it doesn't penetrate the chicken skin, which you'll peel off before removing the meat. I also didn't specify leftover chicken. The chicken should be warm when you assemble this salad. If you do have a well roasted chicken in the fridge instead of a grocery store rotisserie chicken, heat it up a little bit first. It also helps in removing the meat from the carcass if it's slightly warm - no congealed bits of whatever clinging to the meat. Why would warm chicken affect the flavor? The gentle heat helps bring out the flavor of the chicken as well as the other ingredients. Certain dishes with diverse ingredients like chicken salad, vegetable soup, beef stew, and curry depend heavily on the flavors mingling. Warmth can help those flavors meet and party together much faster. If chicken salad is made with cold ingredients, kept chilled, and served chilled, those different tastes never quite get the full opportunity to get to know each other and blend.
Chicken, in addition to forming the base for this dish, adds a rich, meaty tone. Its solid yet mellow flavor profile helps balance the other more strident flavors, bringing them into harmony. Don't use bland, flavorless chicken for this. It would taste slightly discordant without the savory base note to tie it all together.
Mayonnaise isn't my favorite ingredient. Some people say that it's a tasty condiment, but this is actually false. Mayo is a sometimes necessary evil. When on its own and globbed on a utensil, the texture of store bought mayo is on the spectrum of Evilly Jiggling Goo somewhere between "disconcerting" and "horrifying." Our local stores don't have pasteurized eggs, so I won't make my own at this point. It does serve as a suitably mellowing glue to hold everything together. The oil and vinegar won't blend physically or flavor-wise without the emulsifying mayonnaise. Just use as little as possible to hold the liquids and flavors together.
Fuji Apple isn't the only kind of apple worth eating, but it's one of my favorites. The vibrant, tart and sweet apple flavor of this variety is bold enough to hold its own against the other competing ingredients, and the texture is perfectly firm. The apple should be chopped small - they can be somewhat long, but should be no thicker than a pea. Don't dice the apple. It should be left unpeeled (in optimal situations) to include the full apple flavor and texture, but diced bits of apple would have too small a flesh to skin ratio to be palatable. The texture of apple skin requires a decent amount of apple flesh to counteract its thin but leathery feel. Large pieces would be too unevenly distributed, with some bites of chicken salad to be almost all apple, while many other bites would have none at all. This also goes for the asian pear and celery - cut the pieces small. I suggest cutting the apple and the pear into sections, removing all bits of the core and seed compartments, and then chopping those sections into pieces that each contain a tiny bit of apple peel.
Asian Pear is very mild but adds a vital crisp, sweet, watery component. Other recipes use grapes for this. Grapes are sweet and watery, but their softer cell walls compromise the balance. One would either have to slice the grapes in half to ensure enough skin on each grape was present to hold the fruit together in a firm shape, causing very uneven distribution of this flavor component, or cut the grapes into small pieces that will quickly become unappetizingly squishy. Grapes can also be too sour at times. The sour lemon juice in the sauce mingles evenly, but biting into a piece of something squishy and sour within the chicken salad can be startlingly unpleasant. The refreshing, watery component of chicken salad should be well incorporated without causing the sauce to get even slightly runny. This requires a reliably sweet, subtly flavored, watery fruit with cell walls firm enough to hold their structure even when chopped into very fine pieces.
Celery adds a very crisp texture with an almost soapy clean taste. It also brings a little more watery freshness to the dish - it's more watery than the apple but less than the pear. Because the texture of celery is so firm, it can be jarring to crunch into a piece of it among the softer chicken. Chop the celery into even smaller pieces than the apple. I suggest slicing the stalk lengthwise into four sections, then slicing the sections thinly across the grain. If the celery pieces were cut longer with the grain, the longer intact fibers would cause a tougher, stringier texture. When chopped finely, the amount of salt in the salad from the chicken, parmesan, and vinaigrette is just enough to draw some of the water out of the cells to take the harsh edge off the celery's crunch without deflating the cells and turning it soggy.
Walnuts add a satisfying, nutty middle note to the composition, as well as providing a dense intermediate texture that helps mute the contrast between the crunchy celery and soft chicken. Browning the walnuts is crucial for transforming the walnut flavor from a shy hint when you bite an actual piece of walnut into a toasty, earthy, nutty, aromatic vapor that subtly infuses the entire mixture.
Vinaigrette is a shortcut, but the brand I use has a wonderful tart, piquant profile that easily melds into a great chicken salad with the addition of a little olive oil and balsamic vinegar. It also has lots of black pepper, which saves me from having to grind quite as much by hand.
Extra virgin olive oil adds a smooth, rich fluidity to the mouthfeel of the sauce while contributing light fruity overtones, a subtle hint at bitter undercurrent, and echoes of peppery complexity that help blend the aromatic volatile oils from the freshly ground black pepper into the rest of the salad. I like Colavita, but you might prefer a different brand. If your oil is a good quality, you'll need to make sure not to use too much, or it might add a pronounced bitter note to your chicken salad.
Thyme adds a woody, herbaceous, pungent note to the dish. A little goes a long way. One teaspoon of dried thyme is a rather bold addition to this amount of food and brings the herbal scent firmly into the foreground. As long as your chicken, olive oil, and walnuts have enough depth of flavor, the thyme will assertively and elegantly tie the deeper flavors together without overpowering them, much like a dark green satin ribbon wound around a large bouquet of wildflowers.
Lemon juice adds a clean, bright tartness to liven up the heavy mixture of chicken, walnuts, olive oil, and mayonnaise. It also helps offset the sugary apple and pear, reining in their potentially cloying sweetness enough to meet the earthier flavors.
Balsamic vinegar brings a more complex, muted tartness. The condiment type balsamic vinegar has whispered hints of syrupy darkness. Even if the really expensive, long aged balsamic vinegar in tiny bottles was in our budget, it wouldn't be appropriate for this dish.
The shallot, if you're using it, should be chopped very, very fine, no larger than a dried onion flake would be. Although shallot is much subtler than onion, discernible chunks of it would be overpowering in the bites that contained them. The onion-like flavor should be a subtle background note that gently but almost imperceptibly tints each bite. Dried onion flakes are muted enough to be a comparable substitute for the shallot. The onion flakes will absorb liquid and flavors more than forcefully exuding their own flavor, remaining a grounded and lasting addition. I don't recommend onion powder; its high surface area makes for a sharper flavor release. Even using an amount small enough to keep it from nabbing a front row seat in the flavor profile would merely leave a fleeting, out of place, oniony impression.
Black pepper blankets the flavors with a heady pungency. Many of the flavor compounds in black pepper are attributed to volatile oils that can dissipate from the surface of the peppercorns or pepper flakes over time. This is why the black pepper should be freshly ground. You want as many of the volatile compounds as possible. Using a larger amount of pre-ground black pepper is no substitute; it'll leave your food with a stronger bite of bitterness without much of the delightful aromatics.
Parmesan cheese accentuates the meaty flavor of the chicken with its own distinctive, slightly salty umami taste. Don't use the canned stuff for this. If you don't have good quality parmesan cheese, use a teaspoon of soy sauce instead.
Stuff to Avoid:
Grapes (as explained with the asian pear)
Raisins - the chewy texture can push the collection of textures into unpleasantly varied. Even if you're fond of the textural addition, the flavor of raisins is too syrupy for this recipe. If you really insist on adding a dried fruit, use sweetened, dried cranberries. You may have to add a pinch of salt, increase the amount of parmesan, or substitute salted pistachios for the walnuts in order to balance out this addition.
Curry Powder - I'm a big fan of a good curry. I'm not a fan of using a small portion of premixed, complicated, exotic spices in order to clumsily add earthy depth to an already complex dish. Curry powder is discordant in this chicken salad. Even a tiny pinch is still like a flat tenor in a choir: if it's loud enough to make any sort of difference at all, it won't blend with the rest.
Raw Onion - too sharp! Onion flavor does not get a starring role in this production.
Other kinds of cheese - too thick a mouthfeel and no positive contribution to the flavor profile
Miracle Whip - just no.