Chicken Salad with Fruits & Nuts

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Have you ever had a chicken salad that just felt too heavy.  So much mayo that it almost leaves a slick cream streak down your throat?  Creamy is nice but heavy is not.   Especially during the summer months, salad featuring proteins should lift you up, not weigh you down. 

My recent cooking adventures afforded me the opportunity to cater for my Mom's 'Ladies Lunch'. I had proposed a couple of different menu options but they didn't want me to go too crazy, fancy.  Understandably so, they needed food that would have a broad appeal for everyone's palate, which makes total sense given a group of 30. Chicken Salad was suggested.

I must admit that making chicken salad didn't thrill me.  It was my job to give the 'clients' what they wanted but also introduce them to chicken salad with pizzaz. I like to create flavors that pop, and really wanted to make something different for these special ladies.  Instead of creating a new dish, the creating came in the form of how to take bland, regular, mayo slathered chicken salad and make it lighter and more exciting.  Once I realized that they were open to a more zippidity-do chicken salad, I starting thinking: summer, lighter, texture and crunch. That's when I got more excited.  Texture would come by way of adding crunchy, crisp fruits and toasted nuts. And I dare say that the fruits also help to lighten the load. Check off the texture category requirement.  Now how to lighten up the dressing that is typically globs of mayo?  Yogurt is light. It's tangy. It's zingy and is still creamy.  Gosh, if only I could be more like yogurt...
So, that was it.  I would cut the mayo in half using Greek yogurt and add a couple of other zesty ingredients to lighten it up.     

I got the thumbs up from the team leaders, my Mom and Elena. Onto the plan. I went back and forth about whether to use dark and white meat, whether to roast or poach.  In the end, I choose to use organic chicken breasts and to poach them using aromatics to subtly impart flavor.

Ingredients 

(This batch was made for 30 people. And it made about 10 c.  Scale down for your needs.)
For the Poaching
9.5 lbs Chicken Breasts *                                       
4 bay leaves
4-6 lemon slices
2 t peppercorns
1 carrot, chopped in chunks
1 celery stalk, cut in pieces
parsley sprigs

For the Salad
2 c red seedless grapes, thick slices
2-3 red apple, peeled & cubed
5-6 scallions, thinly sliced
1 c walnuts, roasted & rough chopped
* You can also use leftover chicken and add the dressing.  

Dressing
1.5 c Mayonnaise
1.5 Greek Yogurt
2-3 T Lemon zest
1/3 c lemon juice
2 T mustard
salt, pepper
 

Instructions

1. Clean and rinse the chicken well.  In a large sauté pan, add the chicken in one layer in the pan.  Add the aromatics and enough water to almost cover.  Bring to a boil, then cover and let simmer for 8-10 minutes depending on the thickness of the chicken.  Use a thermometer to ensure that the interior is 165 degrees.

2. While the chicken is cooking, make the dressing by whisking together all the ingredients.

Creamy, tangy and light.

Creamy, tangy and light.

3. Once the chicken is done, remove from the pot and let it cool.  Meanwhile, roast the walnuts for 5-7 minutes and rough chop them.  Cut the grapes, apples, and scallions. (Squeeze some lemon juice over the apples or submerge in lemon water to keep them from turning brown.)

Chicken
Red grapes
Apples

4. Either cut the chicken into chunks or shred.  Your choice. Mix all the ingredients together with the dressing.  Some people like their salad moist, others dry. Dress as desired.

Chicken Salad lighter

You can serve this on rolls, or French baguette.  I decided for summertime, and for a healthier option, to serve them with small romaine lettuce leaves to act as boats.   All the ladies enjoyed this light and tangy chicken salad. 

A huge bowl full of light and crunchy, savory and zesty chicken salad.

A huge bowl full of light and crunchy, savory and zesty chicken salad.

The ladies taking a little bit of all the offerings.

The ladies taking a little bit of all the offerings.

Since I made a ton of chicken salad and had so many other offerings, I had some leftovers.  I brought home some chicken salad, and the Israeli Couscous  and Asian Slaw with Tahini/Peanut Dressing and made a bountiful  lunch plate for JC.  At first he said, "That's way too much food."  Not too much later, I found the plate, empty, not even a grain of couscous left.  Apparently, it wasn't too much. He loved it enough to have the rest the next day.  

And since I had some of the chicken salad dressing leftover and I love to share, I gave some to my neighbors who are a foodies. They just happen to have some roasted chicken.  What serendipity.  They mixed up my dressing with their chicken and loved how the lemon zest and juice really brightened it all up.  Why did the neighbor cross the road?  Ask the chicken.

My plate full of love that I made for JC's lunch. Boston lettuce pockets filled with zingy chicken salad, couscous and peanut slaw.

My plate full of love that I made for JC's lunch. Boston lettuce pockets filled with zingy chicken salad, couscous and peanut slaw.

Why did the chicken cross the road?  To mingle with a few fruits and nuts and slather herself in a light yogurt lemon dressing, of course.

 

Amuse Bouche...That's not English, Right?

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Oh the French, they do give us some wonderful food and great phrases.  And the one that starts it all off is the Amuse-bouche.  The literal translation is mouth amuser.  In a restaurant, this is the appetizer before the appetizer. Not ordered from the menu by a customer, but given as a complimentary single bite from the chef to start your meal.  It is meant to amuse the mouth. Get it ready for the meal. Whet the appetite and get the patron excited for what is to come. 

Only the French would think of amusing your mouth. I dare say that the Italians aren't into amusing so much, but straight up satisfying from the onset.  I do love the idea of tickling the tongue with a little nosh to get you primed.  A little food foreplay, wouldn't you say?

This practice doesn't need to be limited to restaurants. As JuanCarlos and I prepare for a trip to France, I reasoned that this was a perfect time to honor their tradition and share some ideas on the subject. So go ahead,  treat your guests to an Amuse Bouche.  You like them, don't you?  So amuse their bouche.

Remember this is meant to be just one little bite not a full blown appetizer. However,  any of these can be an appetizer. (Just love when things can do double duty).  An amuse bouche can range from the elaborate to a very simple offering. 

Here are six offerings, each providing the all important combination of salty, sweet, tang, texture to get the mouth party off to the races.

Goat Cheese & Nut Topped Grapes

These are an easy, pop in your mouth kind of bite.  Refreshing and textural, and create the "more please" effect. 

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  • Use the stemmed end as the base, as this will help the grape stand up.

  • Slice a tiny bit off the top of the grape to have a level landing spot for a dollop of goat cheese.

  • Using a small spoon gather 1/2 tsp of room temp goat cheese and place it atop the grape. (I use my clean fingers to create a little dollop)

  • Dip it in the crushed/ground nuts (such as pistachios or a mix of pecans, walnuts or whatever nut you like). These can be made ahead of time, but save the nut dipping til just before serving. You don't want the nuts to get soggy in the refrigerate. NOBODY likes soggy nuts.

Prep yourself with everything at the ready. Look how simple this is. 3 ingredients. 3 steps: Slice, dollop and dip

Prep yourself with everything at the ready. Look how simple this is. 3 ingredients. 3 steps: Slice, dollop and dip

You can store in the fridge like this with plastic wrap

You can store in the fridge like this with plastic wrap

Dip right before serving.

Dip right before serving.

Salmon Topped Cucumber or Apple

Alright, this may be two bites, but satisfying ones, for sure. These deliver a creamy texture paired with a cool crisp  and salty bite.

Salmon / cream cheese roll up a top a cucumber slice.

Salmon / cream cheese roll up a top a cucumber slice.

  • Cut a 1/2" slice of cucumber.

  • Pipe a dollop of soften cream cheese on top.

  • Place a small piece of smoked salmon laid down in a crossed fashion.

  • Pipe another dollop of cream cheese in the center and top with capers and dill.
    (You can also use the Salmon Roll method. On a large piece of plastic wrap lay the salmon down, making sure to overlay slightly. Spread softened cream cheese on top. Sprinkle with capers, then roll up like a sushi roll, Refrigerate. Once chilled, cut into 1/2” rounds placing atop each cucumber slice. Adorn with dill, as seen above.)

Refreshing on a slice of apple. This is from my   Lox on What?   idea.

Refreshing on a slice of apple. This is from my Lox on What? idea.

Pea Soup Shooter

A chilled, tall drink of spring. (I have not tried these recipes but wanted to provide a few links for your reference.)
Pea Soup Shooter
Pea Shooter
Pea Soup

These were part of the offering at a catering event I did with Regina Mallon Enterprises, food by  Special Attentions .

These were part of the offering at a catering event I did with Regina Mallon Enterprises, food by Special Attentions.

Dates Packed & Wrapped

Boy, does this one get every part of your mouth ready.  It's got salty, sweet, crunch and tang.

Another 3 step method, Slice, stuff and roll.

Another 3 step method, Slice, stuff and roll.

  • Slice open a Meedjol date just enough to remove pit and replace with something better.

  • Stuff it with gorgonzola cheese and a marcona salted almond.

  • Wrap the date with Serrano or Prosciutto ham.

Simple set up of jamón Serrano, gorgonzola, marconas & dates.

Simple set up of jamón Serrano, gorgonzola, marconas & dates.

Just a little slice, yank out the pit and replace with yumminess.

Just a little slice, yank out the pit and replace with yumminess.

Cranked up Caprese Skewers

This is an amped up Caprese salad on a stick.

Ratcheted up a notch by grilling them until they are just warmed then dipped in grated cheese. Oh the melt, the sweet, the salt.

Ratcheted up a notch by grilling them until they are just warmed then dipped in grated cheese. Oh the melt, the sweet, the salt.

Another simple set up with just a few ingredients.

Another simple set up with just a few ingredients.

Once grilled, roll them in grated cheese. Want some heat, sprinkle red pepper flakes, too.

Once grilled, roll them in grated cheese. Want some heat, sprinkle red pepper flakes, too.

  • Skewer a grape tomato, a bocconcino, piece of basil and another grape tomato. (You can certainly serve them as is. But I highly recommend you go the next steps. Also, you can prepare these ahead of time and refrigerate until grilling.)

  • Coat with oil, salt and pepper and lightly grill, then roll in Parmesano Reggiano, and serve immediately.

Chorizo-Manchego-Olive Skewer

A one bite tapa mix that makes a hearty first nibble. 

Warm, cold. Savory, salty, creamy. Need I say more?

Warm, cold. Savory, salty, creamy. Need I say more?

Honestly, I feel like I could create one every week.  The options and ideas are 'to infinity and beyond'.  Just think of little bites that would get your guests ready for more.  Oh la la to the French for their playful amusement.  What a fun game of enticement. 

 
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Brunch Made Simple

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Brunch is supposed to be a relaxed, chill vibe. A time to hang with friends and family. The whole idea is rooted in the premise of sleeping in, then eating lazily in the late morning.  That is true if you are going out to eat, or to someone else's home.  But if you are hosting, it's a bit harder to sleep in. Plus it can feel a bit overwhelming, knowing there are mountains of ideas on what to serve.  I am guilty of wanting to offer up more options than are possible to consume.  (Or to make, for that matter.) The essence of brunch is that beautiful crossover of food from breakfast items to lunch or even a few heartier items. There in lies the rub.  All those choices create a mind numbing battle of what to serve when the possibilities seem endless.

That was my dilemma a while back when we hosted a brunch for our dear friends Carl and Malcolm. I had all sorts of ideas, but I was determined to keep it as simple as possible.  In the end, I felt like I accomplished that, so much so that I recreated the same menu for a Sunday brunch with our other dear friends, Nicki and Jeff. 

A little forewarning, in order to keep this post manageable, each recipe below is a hot link, bolded and highlighted in blue. Just click to be whisked away to see how to make it.

Let us begin:

There were two slight changes to the menu for Nicki and Jeff versus the original. I didn't serve the polenta cake, but did add an amuse-bouche of Ibérico ham, Marcona Almonds, olives.  It was a nice way to greet our friends and settle in a bit as we caught up on our life tales and the many moons that had passed.

Now, you've heard me say many a time that it is essential to serve warm items, room temp and chilled items. This holds especially true for brunch.  Certainly, if I were serving brunch in the winter I might lean on a few more warm plates, but this combo seems just right for the rest of the seasons. Plus, as we head into summer we are in prime time for more entertaining in general, especially outdoors.  Brunch is ideal for backyard entertaining.

 

 

After the nibbles that amused our mouths and whetted our appetites, we started off with a chilled dish, then moved on to all the other plates. Let the party begin with a refreshing and clean burst of citrus.

Citrus Salad Martini

A 'brighten your day' start to Sunday, or any day for that matter.

A 'brighten your day' start to Sunday, or any day for that matter.

Next up was a continuation of fruit, transitioning to savory with this lightly tossed salad.

GRAPED UP BOSTON SALAD

Boston lettuce with grapes, fennel, celery, scallion. It's bright and light.

Boston lettuce with grapes, fennel, celery, scallion. It's bright and light.

Something warm with...

TOMATO & GOAT CHEESE PIE

Warm and savory. The sweetness of the tomatoes balances the tang of the goat cheese.

Warm and savory. The sweetness of the tomatoes balances the tang of the goat cheese.

Something room temp and hearty...

Salmon Salad Platter, Deconstructed

Polenta Cake

Polenta cake cut into slices.

Polenta cake cut into slices.

Ingredients

2 c polenta (cook according to package)
1.5 T butter
1/4 c chives, chopped
1/3 c goat cheese
salt, pepper

Instructions

Once the polenta is cooked, remove from the burner and stir in the butter, goat cheese and chives, salt and pepper until combined.  Lightly oil a cast iron pan and pour in the polenta. Bake at 350 degrees until a crust forms. Turn onto a board or plate and cut into wedges.  Best served warm but room temp is good too.

What I love best about this meal is that so much can be done in advance. The big plus is that any of these can be served at room temp, therefore, less stress about timing and getting the plates to the table.  

Then for dessert, I kept with the same theme of simple.  Prepped ahead of time and waiting on the kitchen table, I brought out a small platter of fresh cheeses (Manchego & Ibores),  grapes, strawberries and Sweet Olive Oil Crackers. Certainly, you can go sweet at this stage of the meal, but this felt right, and I believe our guests thought so too.

So, although YOU might not be sleeping in as late as everyone else, but taking the homemade brunch route doesn't have to stress you out.  Create the perfect crossover meal.  

 
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The Art of a Charcuterie & Cheese Platter

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As the holidays come barreling down the highway, ideas for what to serve are top of mind. With all the hustle and bustle, a good way to fill the table, fill your guests and keep sane during the season is to offer up a beautiful, bountiful charcuterie platter as part of your appetizer/cocktail hour.  There are many ways to stack up all your meats, cheeses and other nibbles, but a tried and true method is have a wide selection,  keep like items together and spread the color around for visual impact.  

Sure, there are plenty of other rules like; offer 3 different types of cheese (cow, goat, sheep). Or one should be hard, another soft, one should be mild, one should be strong, blah blah blah.  Joking aside, these are some decent guidelines. But your own instinct and good judgement are the very best rules to follow.

I say, buy and serve what you love and what you think your guests will enjoy. Sometimes I serve four cheeses. Sometimes three or five.  There are no hard and fast rules but I will share some of the tips that my heart follows, and thus do my platters.  

  • I like to offer up a 'palate party'. Put forth different items that will excite all the sensory notes on your tongue. Cheese and meat for the savory elements, fruits both fresh and dried for sweetness, nuts or chick peas for crunch, olives for a salty bite. You get the idea.

  • Use bowls for smaller items. They contain them plus create height giving the platter a bit more interest.

  • Add fresh items like vegetables or greens

  • Include small spoons or forks so guests can easily pick up food

  • Arrange each item in groupings, either neatly and orderly or nicely bunched together

  • Be colorful. Spread the hues around so that similar colors aren't next to one another.

  • Fill your charcuterie platters chock full of goodies. Depending on what you have available and how you want your guests to feast should determine what goes on your platter. Pull out what you have and see if it's the right mix.

  • If it may seem overwhelming, then place all your items on the board to help provide a visual sense.

Using fruit of the season is a wonderful complement to cheese. If your cheese, meat and fruit choices feel like they are all in the same color scheme, tuck some herbs or greens on the edges for some visual anchoring.

Using fruit of the season is a wonderful complement to cheese. If your cheese, meat and fruit choices feel like they are all in the same color scheme, tuck some herbs or greens on the edges for some visual anchoring.

Let's build a platter.  

Here is 2 types of dry cured sausage, 3 types of cheese, Marcona almonds, olives, dried apricots, gluten free crackers and short bread sticks.

Here is 2 types of dry cured sausage, 3 types of cheese, Marcona almonds, olives, dried apricots, gluten free crackers and short bread sticks.

Filling the bowls.
For some small items like nuts, you can snuggle them up to another offerings. However, I find that items with liquid, like olives, are best contained.  Once I have one small bowl, then I usually like to add another for balance. Also, a suggestion is to stay within a color scheme when choosing vessels.  I have presented my platters with and without bowls.  It's just how the mood hits me.  Design at will.

Create Height:
For more visual interest, place a big hunk of cheese then arrange the cut pieces around it.  This creates structure and height but also shows your guests the cheese in its original state.

Make it Easy to Eat:
When presenting cheese and meats, I prefer cutting each one so they are readily available for guests.  They can just pick up a few pieces and go.  I have noticed that trying to cut with all the other items on a platter can be difficult. For cheese, I look for the natural and most logical way to cut a particular cheese.  Each one has its own best way to present it.  Some are better in big chunks while others work beautifully in elongated triangles. Much like people, we come in a myriad of shapes and sizes but all mingle together.

Presentation:
Keep cutting and placing and building up your board.  Place items around and see how they feel in the space. They can always be shifted around.  You can't make a mistake.

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Build it up:
Keep at it until you get it just the way you want. Generally, I just go with the flow.  Insert here, augment there to create a platter that looks appealing and complements my other appetizer offerings.  My suggestion is play around until you get a sense of how the meats and cheeses and fruits and other snack-ables like cozying up together.  

If you are wondering what these tiny round nuggets in the center bowl are, why those are my  Spicy Chick Peas  that make a perfect addition to a platter or alone for cocktails.

If you are wondering what these tiny round nuggets in the center bowl are, why those are my Spicy Chick Peas that make a perfect addition to a platter or alone for cocktails.

When it comes to dry cured meats like Prosciutto or Serrano ham, you can rock and roll 'em up. 

 

Serrano ham

Serrano ham

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Other times, they are best when gathered to make little bunches.

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Other dry cured meats can be folded or curled like trumpets for a tidy look.  I think it's the uniformity that makes it appealing and appetizing.  

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Now that you have the basics, here are a few other tips plus other platters I have created in the past to get a sense or arrangement.

I am an equal opportunity employer when it comes to my serving ware.  So I like to put into play a variety of shapes and sizes when I build my platters. Incorporating the shape of those boards/platters helps to paint the picture of the final layout.  If you have curves (like I do...) embrace them, work with them and arrange your items
in a circular fashion.  

Also, introduce veggies when you can. Since crackers can be heavy, I adore including cucumbers. (I use either English or Persian, as they have less seeds.) They work just like bread or a cracker as a delivery vehicle, and are a great alternative for gluten free and carb free folks.  Plus they burst onto the scene with a green that just makes me smile.

When you do use crackers and want to keep it all contained, include them nestled in so that guests can grab whatever their heart desires all from one place. 

Abundancia: Figs, triple cream goat cheese, Moroccan oil cured olives, Serrano ham, Fuet, cheeses, grapes, nuts, onion jam (recipe coming soon) Mary's Gone Gluten Free crackers.

Abundancia: Figs, triple cream goat cheese, Moroccan oil cured olives, Serrano ham, Fuet, cheeses, grapes, nuts, onion jam (recipe coming soon) Mary's Gone Gluten Free crackers.

The introduction of dips, such as hummus, right in the midst of it all augments your offerings with a creamy factor. I'm a big fan of tucking greens in and around. Arugula provides a lovely, spicy bite that dances well with all these flavors.  The greens not only brighten the platter but provide a crispness that both lightens and refreshes the palate.

Notice how I didn't use a bowl for the nuts here but instead just piled them amongst their friends.

Notice how I didn't use a bowl for the nuts here but instead just piled them amongst their friends.

Sometimes you can make a big impact by mixing nice and neat items that anchor the others that are just mounded up abundantly in the middle.

No matter how you decide to arrange your charcuterie platter, have fun with it. With every grab of a piece of this and a slice of that your guests will be delighted with your bountiful offering.

Graped Up Bibb Salad

When I was growing up, salad was always a part our meal.  Every night without fail there was salad on the table. However, looking back now I realize that the salad remained the same; lettuce dressed with olive oil, red wine vinegar, salt and pepper.  My mom used Iceberg lettuce for a long time before she realized that it had no nutritional value whatsoever. Yet even after she started using romaine lettuce, the salad stayed exactly as before: Just the Lettuce, Ma'am.   

I can't quite remember when salad became so important to me.  I'm not sure if I started experimenting during my High School years or maybe when I became a vegetarian in college. The starting point isn't as important as where I am today.  I love salads.  I love making them.  I love eating them. But most of all, I love sharing them.

Whenever I am planning a meal or dinner party, I consider salad to be one of the main dishes not the wallflower that stands on the sidelines hoping someone notices. Yet, I do keep in mind that it does need to complement the meal, not steal the show.  The flavors should enhance and unify the rest of the food offerings.  This Graped Up Bibb Salad did just that as one of the stars of a recent brunch. It was the bridge between the Citrus Salad: Martini Style to the rest of the meal. The two types of grapes played so well with the two types of Apiaceae vegetables; celery and fennel.  The mildness of Bibb lettuce provided a wonderful, soft backdrop so the other ingredients could pop when blended with a lemon mustard dressing. It was a lovely mix between the sweet and savory.

INGREDIENTS

1 lg or 2 small heads of Bibb/Boston lettuce
1/3 c thinly sliced scallions
1 c chopped celery
1 c red grapes, halved
1 c green grapes, halved
1/2 c sliced fennel
(reserve the fronds to mix into the dressing)

Dressing

1/4 c fresh lemon juice
1 tsp whole grain mustard
1/4 t crushed garlic
1/2 c olive oil
1 T chopped fennel fronds
salt & pepper to taste
Whisk together until well blended and pour over salad right before serving.

Like a crisp morning day, this salad is a fresh start to any meal and perfect for a brunch.

 

 

 

I'm dedicating this post to my fabulous husband on this day his birthday.  He is a huge fan of my salads, and I'm so grateful to have him in my life,  supporting me and my many endeavors.  Together, life is grand. Here's to creating, testing and enjoying salads for decades to come. 

 

My handsome, supportive and loving husband, JuanCarlos... and me.

My handsome, supportive and loving husband, JuanCarlos... and me.