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Potluck : A Chicken in Every Potluck . . . : Put a Bird in the Salad

<i> Levy is a cookbook author</i>

Mention “chicken salad” and most people think of a bland mixture of cold chicken and mayonnaise. This was the version I grew up with, and I must admit I still enjoy it once in a while. But living in Europe and here in California, I’ve learned many more ways for turning chicken into colorful, fresh, flavorful salads.

In addition to cool chicken salads, there’s a whole new category of light chicken salads that are served warm. Both are perfect for summer.

For the warm salads, the chicken is usually grilled, sliced and set on a bed of greens. Boneless breasts are preferred because they are easy to cut into neat pieces for a pretty presentation. What else you add depends on what you like--raw or sauteed mushroom slices, sun-dried tomato strips, black olives, marinated artichokes or even thin fruit wedges.

The dressing of choice for hot salads is vinaigrette. In recent years vinaigrette has superseded mayonnaise in many cold chicken salads as well. Vinaigrette is lighter and thinner, so less dressing is needed and the salad ends up lower in fat. There’s another advantage to vinaigrette--it shows off the salad’s colors beautifully.

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To create exciting salads, whether hot or cold, you can choose classic ingredient combinations from different cuisines. For a Mexican-inspired salad, you might toss the chicken with avocado, corn, cilantro and chiles. Water chestnuts, bean sprouts and lightly cooked snow peas, with a little soy sauce and sesame oil added to the dressing, give chicken salad an Asian flavor. A chicken salad with grilled sweet red peppers, rosemary and sage boldly announces its Italian connection.

Pasta and grains are excellent partners for chicken in salads, as is almost any cooked vegetable, from sauteed eggplant to blanched carrot strips to canned baby corn. Raw vegetables are good too, as in Chicken Tabbouleh Salad, which includes poached chicken as well as the traditional Middle Eastern medley of diced tomatoes, cucumbers, bulgur wheat, fresh mint and parsley.

The fashion of arranging salad ingredients on baby greens began in the finest restaurants in France. Soon melanges of exotic salad greens, already washed, began appearing in Paris markets, and now our best markets carry them too. They provide a lovely fresh background for new and familiar chicken salads.

On warm days, nothing is easier to prepare or eat than a light, refreshing cold salad. Even shopping is quick--only a few fine-quality fresh ingredients are needed. For cold salads, you can cook the chicken a day or two ahead or buy some roast chicken from a deli.

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For this salad, you can either grill or broil the chicken.

WARM CHICKEN SALAD WITH ROSEMARY-SAGE VINAIGRETTE

2 tablespoons white wine vinegar

Salt

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Freshly ground pepper

7 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 1/2 tablespoons chopped fresh sage

1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary

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1 pound medium-width asparagus, peeled, ends trimmed, cut in 2-inch lengths

2 sweet red peppers, cut in thin strips

4 boneless chicken breast halves, with skin

6 cups mixed lettuce, such as romaine, red leaf lettuce and arugula

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1 1/3 cups fresh or frozen corn kernels, cooked

Whisk vinegar with salt and pepper to taste in medium bowl. Whisk in 6 tablespoons olive oil. Stir in sage and rosemary. Adjust seasonings to taste.

Cook asparagus in uncovered medium saucepan of boiling salted water over high heat about 3 minutes or until tender-crisp. Drain. Rinse with cold water and drain well. Heat remaining 1 tablespoon oil in large skillet over medium heat. Add red peppers and saute until tender-crisp, about 8 minutes.

Season both sides of chicken to taste with salt and pepper. Brush lightly with oil. Broil about 4 inches from heat or grill above glowing coals, about 7 minutes per side or until tender and no longer pink when cut. Remove to board and cut into 3 or 4 diagonal slices. Keep warm.

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Set aside 8 asparagus tips. To mixed greens, add corn, pepper strips, remaining asparagus and 1/4 cup vinaigrette. Toss until coated. Taste and adjust seasonings. Divide among plates, spooning corn from bottom of bowl onto each. Set chicken slices on salad mixture and asparagus tips on top. Spoon remaining vinaigrette over chicken. Serve immediately. Makes 4 servings.

This Middle Eastern dish makes a beautiful and colorful buffet salad. I find its refreshing flavors of mint, green onions and lemon perfect as the basis for a chicken salad. Usually bulgur wheat is soaked for at least an hour, but for this quick version it is ready in 15 minutes.

CHICKEN TABBOULEH SALAD

1 cup bulgur

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2 1/4 cups boiling water

2 cups diced cooked chicken

3 tablespoons lemon juice, or more to taste

6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

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Salt

Freshly ground pepper

Cayenne pepper

1/2 long European cucumber or 1 medium cucumber, peeled and finely diced

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3 green onions, thinly sliced

2/3 cup chopped parsley, preferably Italian parsley

3/4 cup chopped fresh mint

5 plum tomatoes, finely diced

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Lettuce leaves, optional

Combine bulgur and boiling water in medium saucepan. Cover and cook over low heat 15 minutes or until tender. Turn out into large bowl and cool.

Combine chicken, 1 tablespoon lemon juice and 3 tablespoons olive oil in bowl. Season to taste with salt, pepper and cayenne. Cover and chill.

Gently mix cucumber with green onions, parsley, mint and bulgur. Mix in chicken mixture. Gently fold in tomatoes, remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil and 2 tablespoons lemon juice. Adjust seasonings to taste, adding more lemon juice, oil and cayenne, if desired. Salad can be kept, covered, 1 day in refrigerator. Serve on lettuce-lined platter, either cold or at cool room temperature. Makes about 8 appetizer or 5 to 6 main-course servings.

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Note: Bulgur wheat can be found at Middle Eastern/Mediterranean shops, health food stores and some supermarkets. If you can’t find it, substitute couscous--that’s what French chefs use when preparing tabbouleh. Cook couscous according to package instructions, omitting any butter or oil specified.


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