I’m partial to porches. And I’m a sucker for chicken salad. Throw them together with some lightning bugs and the growl of coming thunderstorms, and you’ve got the summer suppers on the porch of my childhood home.
So, of course, a couple of years ago, when my husband and I found ourselves wandering around the funky little town of New Paltz, New York one muggy Saturday (our older daughter was to start college there), I gravitated toward the umbrella-shaded deck of The Village Tea Room. Sure enough, chicken salad was on the menu. It wasn’t one of those predictable versions with grapes or that ’80s favorite, with walnuts and tarragon. No, this was Cilantro Almond Chicken Salad. What arrived was my idea of perfection: moist, tender breast meat, shredded (not chopped), enveloped in a sour-cream-lightened mayonnaise and studded with the toasty crunch of golden-roasted almonds and pungent shreds of cilantro. From then on, any trip to New Paltz involved a stop for that salad. (Full disclosure: My daughter later landed a part-time job at the restaurant, but I was a fan before she got the gig.)
A few weeks ago, I finally asked chef-owner Agnes Devereux about her recipe. “Oh, goodness,” she said, and admitted she’d found the recipe online. “I was looking for a new chicken salad idea, and I love almonds and cilantro.” My stomach did a flip turn.
A quick search brought up Chicken and Roasted Pepper Sandwiches with Cilantro Almond Relish, developed by my colleague Melissa Roberts for our August 2002 issue. The sandwich Roberts devised—slices of tender poached chicken breast and roasted peppers with bands of cilantro almond relish—was not only damn good, it was really photogenic; the online photo reminded me that I’d liked it so much in the test kitchen, I’d snuck leftovers upstairs to my desk. How could I have forgotten all about it?
Like all great cooks, Devereux played around with the recipe and made it her own. She doubled the proportion of relish to morph it into a dressing, shredded the breast meat (better texture for a salad), and then mixed everything up together. That way, she can serve it as a main dish on greens or as a sandwich filling. You can probably guess the rest of the story: It was such a hit, it’s lived happily ever after on her summer menu ever since. As proud as I am of Gourmet and Melissa Roberts, I have to admit that porch or no porch, I’ll be eating Devereux’s version from now on … with a few tweaks of my own, of course.
Kemp’s Take-Away Tip
When making chicken salad, shred the meat instead of chopping it. This simple process raises the bar for any chicken salad, making it better-looking and more tender as well. Shredding the meat also helps it absorb the dressing; if you happen to overcook the meat (and let’s be honest—who hasn’t?), it will still taste moist. For more on poaching and shredding chicken, see How to Poach and Shred Chicken.