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Southern Salads: Chicken Salad

Libby Wiersema Libby Wiersema
Libby Wiersema lived in California and Alabama before settling in South Carolina 30 years ago, where she's covered the state's best culinary offerings and tells the stories behind the food.
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Fried isn’t the only way we South Carolinians like our chicken. Chicken salad gives its deep-fried, crusty cousin serious competition as our favorite poultry dish. If you’re envisioning a bowl of greens topped with slices of chicken, you probably aren’t from the South. Here, the term “chicken salad” denotes a creamy concoction that is typically parceled out by the scoop instead of the chicken part.

Poached or roasted chicken, celery, pickle relish and mayonnaise are the components of traditional Southern chicken salad. Some cooks enhance the flavor and texture with chopped pecans or diced sweet onion. A lot of folks, however, frown upon the addition of grapes, apple or other fruits, insisting pickle relish is all the sweet you need. Of course, you can add whatever you like, though the down-home versions are usually no-frills.

As with most Southern salads, mayonnaise brings all the ingredients together to make one delicious dish for cool suppers, light lunches, picnics and potlucks. Thanks to the mayo, chicken salad is also spreadable, which makes it just right for canapés or elegant finger sandwiches for cocktail parties.

One rule of thumb that should be heeded: breast meat beats dark meat when it comes to chicken salad. While thighs and legs are juicy and full-flavored—just right for frying, grilling and baking—they tend to be chewier when served cold. Breast meat is leaner, which means it stays more tender after refrigeration. (Chicken salad should always be well-chilled.)

To cook the chicken breasts, a gentle poaching works well and will ensure the meat stays moist. Overcooking will make it tough and ruin your dish. Of course, you can forego this step and opt for a store-bought rotisserie bird—a perfectly acceptable shortcut, especially during those hot Southern summers. A couple of words about canned chicken: just don’t. The fresh flavors of chicken salad are what make it the favorite cold salad of legions of Southerners. Don’t mess with the fresh!

Now that you’re dreaming of a big bowl of creamy, tender chicken salad, it’s time to get into the kitchen. Here’s a basic recipe for traditional Southern chicken salad that will easily become a classic in your family, no matter which side of the Mason-Dixon line you call home.

Southern Chicken Salad
4 chicken breasts, boneless and skinless
½ cup celery, finely chopped
¼ cup sweet onion, diced
2 tbs. sweet pickle relish
¾ cup mayonnaise (Use Duke’s brand for an authentically Southern touch. If you like a more spreadable salad, add more mayonnaise one tablespoon at a time until desired consistency.)
½ tsp. salt (for poaching)
Salt and pepper to taste

Bring a pan of water to a simmer with ½ teaspoon salt and a bay leaf. Place chicken breasts in pan, cover and simmer over low heat for about 10 minutes or until chicken registers 165-170 degrees on a meat thermometer. Drain the cooked chicken on paper towels and allow to cool before chopping. (Save chicken broth in the refrigerator for soup.) In a bowl, toss chopped chicken with celery, onion and relish, then mix in mayonnaise to bind. Add salt and pepper to taste. Chill well before serving.

Libby Wiersema
Libby Wiersema lived in California and Alabama before settling in South Carolina 30 years ago, where she's covered the state's best culinary offerings and tells the stories behind the food.