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A Mayo-Free Chicken Salad

October 14, 2010

I come from the school of improvisational cooking. My parents, grandparents, aunts — everyone I’ve ever seen cook pretty much — throws things into a pot and hopes it turns out tasty. It makes posting family recipes a total nightmare, as everyone does things a little bit differently and no one can quantify amounts of anything. But it makes for a lot of fun in the kitchen and a lifetime of delicious meals.

Of course, with my barely one year of actual cooking experience (not counting baking), I have none of the intuition for flavor and technique that my family does. But I’ve been in a total lunch rut the past few weeks. Baking and other morning activities leave me with little time to make something before work, and by the time I get downtown to my office, I have barely enough time to grab an overpriced, underwhelming sandwich before rushing to my desk. Needless to say, both my wallet and my stomach end up unsatisfied.

When contemplating fast lunch options that I could make the night before, chicken salad popped into my head. One night this summer, Keith and I made a huge batch of chicken salad to take with us to the beach the next day. Ultimately we didn’t end up taking the salad with us, but boy was it delicious! A diced red onion, a jalapeño, cilantro and hot sauce, mixed with plenty of mayo and a rotisserie chicken created a rich, creamy salad with a nice kick.

But I was unsatisfied. I’m not a huge mayo fan to begin with, and well … it was bathing suit season. There had to be a way to lighten the salad up. I immediately thought of Greek yogurt, and as hard as I tried, I could not shake the idea out of my head. It’s creamy and had plenty of tang (Lord knows, I love it so) and I assumed that it would be the perfect low-fat, low-cholesterol alternative to mayo. When I couldn’t find a mayo-free chicken salad on the Interwebs, I was undeterred. “I come from improvising stock. I can do this,” I told myself on the way to the grocery store, in the checkout line and in my aunt’s kitchen.

Well, perhaps I need a little more practice on that whole “make your own recipe” thing. While I’m not going to write this experiment off as a total disaster (it is my lunch today, after all), the chicken salad wasn’t what I remember from Keith’s version, and I have to say, I kind of miss some of the mayo. I never realized that there’s a lot of flavor in it, flavor that Greek yogurt just cannot match.

This version was a little lacking on punch. Perhaps more lemon juice would do the trick. Or a tablespoon of hot sauce, which I didn’t have. But I like this version enough to try again, maybe fooling around more with proportions, flavors, different textures, different herbs. Hopefully I’ll find The One soon, and both my wallet and my stomach will thank me. Until then, I’ll stick to chickpea salad. (Yum!)

– 1 whole rotisserie chicken (my yield was about 3-1/2 cups of shredded chicken, so if you’re using only chicken breasts, aim for that amount)

– 1/2 red onion, diced (I used a whole red onion, which was way too much, especially since my onion was rather onion-y)

– 1 cup + 1 tablespoon Greek yogurt (I used non-fat, because I like the least amount of richness in my chicken salad, yeah! Plus, this is the only kind I eat and I didn’t want to throw out the leftovers … )

– 1 tablespoon horseradish mustard (Dijon would work equally well)

– juice of ½ a lemon

– a handful of chopped cilantro

These I added this afternoon, while scouring the fridge for things to add to the salad:

– 2 tablespoons pickled jalapeños slices (or use a fresh jalapeño, seeded and diced) — adding a 1/2 teaspoon of the juice really kicked up the flavor

– a handful of seedless red grapes, cut in half

1) Remove the skin from the rotisserie chicken and discard. Pull the chicken off the bones, chopping into smaller pieces if necessary. You should yield close to 3-1/2 cups of chicken from a medium-sized rotisserie chicken. Place in a large bowl with the diced onion.

2) Mix the Greek yogurt, mustard and lemon juice. Coat the chicken thoroughly in the yogurt. Toss in the cilantro, and whatever toppings you like on your chicken salad.

Variations: Like I said, this recipe is still a work in progress. I liked it better with the added jalapeños and grapes. You could also add cornichons or regular pickles if you have those on hand. Hot sauce or tabasco would be a welcome addition as well. You could also swap out the cilantro for parsley or tarragon (I love me a tarragon chicken salad, yum), since cilantro is one of those things that a lot of people just don’t like. And of course, play around with different mustards — I only had horseradish mustard in the fridge, but Ina Garten makes a yummy-looking chicken salad with both smooth and coarse Dijon, and I bet spicy brown would be interesting here too. You could also add steamed broccoli, celery, apples, carrots — whatever vegetables you like. And if you find The One first, report back to me immediately!

Note: I suppose you could also add a few tablespoons of mayo, if you really think that it just isn’t chicken salad without it. But that would defeat the whole purpose of my experiment, so I stubbornly chose not to.

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