Tarragon Chicken Salad

Tarragon Chicken Salad


I know, you’re thinking how tired is tarragon chicken salad? Well, it may seem like a throwback to the 50’s ladies who luncheon days, but it is after all classic summer fare that, with a little updating, can be as relevant to today’s tastes as it ever was in the past. 

I recently happened onto an article by Julia Moskin in the NY Times with a recipe for a tarragon chicken salad that tackled the problem that most chicken salads suffer from. To quote “The secret isn’t in the seasonings but in the texture of the chicken, described as “plush” by the chef Barbara Tropp in her “China Moon” cookbook. She incorporated Chinese methods and flavors to her cooking, including this foolproof method for poaching chicken breasts without overcooking.”

Ay, there’s the rub! How often have you poached chicken that ends up being tough and rubbery? More often than not I’m guessing. This method, similar to how  you  would poach salmon, works its magic and consistently turns out perfectly poached moist tender chicken that you can depend on.  

China Moon was one of my favorite restaurants in San Francisco as is Barbara Tropp’s China Moon cookbook. The book is out of print, but still available online from various vendors. Barbara Tropp was as knowledgeable about Chinese food as she was an innovative cook who respectfully introduced western ingredients into Chinese cooking in America.

The recipe that follows is adapted from Julia Moskin’s  NYTimes recipe. I have given the recipe a few tweeks and lightened it up a bit, substituting Greek yogurt for the sour cream or crème fraiche, in keeping with how we like to eat these days.


Tarragon Chicken Salad serves 4

For the chicken:

  • 2 pounds chicken breasts, skin on or off
  • 4 scallions chopped into thirds
  • 1 bay leaf
  • ¾ teaspoon black peppercorns
  • a pinch of sea salt

For the dressing:

  • ½ cup mayonnaise
  • ½ teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 3 tablespoons Greek yoghurt
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1/3 cup finely sliced scallions
  • 1/3 cup diced white young celery if available (optional)
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon leaves (or 1 teaspoon dried)
  • a few twists of freshly ground white pepper
  • ½ teaspoon sea salt, or more to taste
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped flat leaf parsley,or gremolata if on hand (see here)

Select a heavy saucepan with a tight fitting lid and fill it about two thirds full of water. Add the scallions, bay leaf, peppercorns, and a pinch of sea salt. Set on the stove over high heat and bring to a boil. Once boiling lower the heat and simmer for 10 minutes.

Have ready a kettle with boiling water available to add to the saucepan once the chicken is added so that the chicken is covered by 2 inches.

If the chicken breasts are very large, as were mine, you might want to divide them in half lengthwise for more even poaching.

After simmering for 10 minutes turn the heat up and bring contents back up to a rolling boil and then turn off the heat. Promptly add the chicken and enough additional boiled water to cover the chicken by 2 inches. Cover with a tight fitting lid and set aside for 2 hours to poach the chicken.
Note: On a cool day it is best to wrap the lidded saucepan with kitchen towels to retain the heat.

While the chicken is poaching you can prepare the dressing.

In a non-reactive bowl large enough to hold the chicken, combine the mayonnaise, Dijon mustard, Greek yogurt, and lemon juice and stir together until well combined. Add the sliced scallions, celery if using, tarragon, freshly ground pepper, sea salt and 2 tablespoons chopped parsley (or gremolata) and fold in until well combined.

Cover the dressing and refrigerate. Reserve the remaining chopped parsley (or gremolata) for garnishing before serving.

After two hours remove the breasts from the poaching broth and set them aside to cool. Remove the skin if attached and discard.

While the chicken is cooling return the poaching broth to the heat and simmer to reduce by a third. Skim off any foam that forms on the surface and discard. Strain the broth and set aside to cool, and then refrigerate for another use. Or, as is customary here in Asia, hot clear chicken broth often accompanies chicken dishes. Simply add some sliced scallions, a few parsley leaves, and salt to taste and serve in small bowls along with the chicken salad if you like!

Once the chicken is cool, gently pull the chicken apart into “plush” chunky strips.

Add the chicken to the dressing and fold together until the dressing evenly coats the chicken. Cover and refrigerate for several hours before serving.

Serving: Have ready a bowl of fresh mixed salad greens, iceberg, radicchio, and rocket in the refrigerator. Just before serving toss the salad with a few splashes olive oil and red wine vinegar, some flaked sea salt, and freshly ground pepper. Place a bed of salad on individual plates and top with the chicken salad. Lightly garnish with reserved parsley or gremolata.

As pictured, served with crisp crostini. (see here)

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