I am something of a chicken salad savant. I came late to the party, having an unreasonable and unfathomable aversion to mayonnaise in my youth and childhood. That, and little exposure to good chicken salad. I only choked down bad, plastic-container chicken salad out of politeness at parties and luncheons, and maybe a school cafeteria. Chewy chicken, gloopy mayo, or more likely “salad dressing” and unidentifiable chunks of lord-only-knows, frequently scooped like a baseball. But when the possibilities of chicken salad opened up to me, it was a culinary floodgate released. I have such a catalog of chicken salads, for every season, every taste, every occasion, it is hard for me to believe that I haven’t posted one here yet.
Chicken salad done well is a revelation. Tender cooked chicken lightly bound in a flavorful dressing, perfectly seasoned, with enough additional ingredients to make it interesting, but no so many to make it overwhelming. A nice bowl of good chicken salad in the fridge means you never go hungry and is a real boon in the steamy summer months. It’s a great take along for a weekend away or a picnic. This Lemon Dill version is a favorite of mine, even though I originally created it for my mom, featuring two of her favorite flavors. The chicken is cooked to maximize the lemon flavor, crispy vegetables and crunchy pine nuts provide texture and a touch of buttermilk in the minimal dressing adds a nice tang.
You may want to argue about my method of cooking the chicken – but I promise, you will be impressed. It’s based on the way I often cook Moroccan tagines. Tightly covered, the chicken and lemons will produce a lot of juice and basically poach in a flavorful broth. The chicken comes out tender and infused with lemon and dill. It takes an hour to cook, but a few seconds to put together.
Lemon Dill Chicken Salad
Serve this in a sandwich, spooned into lettuce leaves, or on it’s own with a few crackers
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1 bunch fresh dill
1 celery stalk
¼ cup pine nuts (or slivered almonds)
½ cup mayonnaise
3 Tablespoon buttermilk
Salt and pepper
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Place the chicken breasts in an 8 by 8 inch baking dish and season with salt. Slice one of the lemons and place over the chicken breasts. Scatter half of the dill stalks over the chicken and lemons. Cover the dish tightly with a double layer of foil and bake for 1 hour.
Meanwhile, finely dice the carrot and celery. When the chicken is cooked and cool enough to handle, cut it into small, bite-sized pieces. Place the chicken in a large bowl with the diced carrots and celery. Toss together with the pine nuts.
In a small bowl, whisk the mayonnaise and buttermilk. Zest the remaining lemon into the mayonnaise. Finely chop the remaining dill fronds and add to the mayonnaise dressing with salt to taste and a few grinds of pepper. Squeeze the juice from the lemon over the chicken in the bowl and toss to coat. Pour over the dressing and stir to coat evenly.
This chicken salad will keep in an airtight container in the fridge for several days. Do not leave it out and return to the fridge. Spoon out what you need and leave the rest chilling.