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Recipes and Stories

16 February 2018: Hot, or Baked, Chicken Salad

Hot, or Baked Chicken Salad, a relatively new Southern classic

Tradition has often been defined as “how they did it when we were children” and it’s not a bad description of the way we all too often look at the elusive thing that we call Southern Cooking. So much of the “traditional” cooking that sparks debate among Southerners today has actually not been around all that long.

For example, one of the easiest ways to start the biggest fight you ever saw is to pronounce before a group of Southerners that there is only one true way to make pimiento cheese and then proceed to describe said way. Every single person present will argue that you don’t know what you’re talking about, because that’s not how their grandmother made it.

And yet, pimiento cheese as we know it today has only been around since the early-to-mid twentieth century. The earliest references to it in Southern cookbooks are thought to be referring to a commercial product of cream cheese studded with pimientos—which didn’t even originate in the South. But by the 1940s, less than thirty years after those early references, homemade pimiento cheese of the kind that we know and love today was commonplace.

Most of my career as a Southern food writer has been spent in the company of food writers who have been dead for more than a century. The youngster among them, Henrietta Stanley Dull, was a hundred years old when she died in 1964. This is not because I have a morbid attraction to dead people, but because my job as a historian has been to look back to the roots of this cookery, to help us understand where the various cuisines we loosely call “Southern Cooking” were born.

And in so doing, I find that a lot of the things like pimiento cheese that I took so for granted in my youth are neither as old nor traditional as I and most Southerners of my generation and younger have supposed.

Among them are covered dish supper casseroles. Born of the savory baked puddings, gratins, and crustless “pies” that go back in Southern (and indeed American cooking in general) for centuries, casseroles, named for the shallow baking dish in which they’re cooked, became popular in the 1930s and really came into their own in the 1950s and 60s—around the time of my own childhood. They were economical, easy to put together, could be made ahead, and were simple to transport to a bereaved or troubled family or to one of those communal church suppers.

Their rise in popularity closely paralleled the advent of canned condensed soup. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to notice that an undiluted or barely diluted canned cream-of soup was a ready-made white sauce that took no more effort than turning the key of a can opener. Working women and homemakers who were on a budget, had little or no help, and were pressed for time embraced the cream-of casserole, and by the time I was growing up, they were a “tradition.”

One especially nice sub-category of these casseroles is hot, or baked, chicken salad. Why it’s called “salad” is lost to time. Maybe the first one was actually created from leftover chicken salad that was stretched out with sauce, topped with crumbs, and baked—but that’s just speculation. Possibly it’s only called that because it contains the elements of a traditional chicken salad. I call it a “category” rather than a single dish because the variations on it are dizzying. But this is how the ones from my own childhood were made . . . so you know what that means: it’s tradition!

Hot, or Baked, Chicken Salad

The biggest drawback of the cream-of casseroles is that those cream-of soups give them a kind of palate-numbing sameness. It’s not much more trouble to make your own sauce and, especially if it’s made with the broth from cooking the chicken that goes into it, it’ll taste so much fresher and better that the little bit of effort is well worth it.

If you’re pressed for time or have leftovers, this can be made with already cooked chicken and canned broth. It isn’t as good, but it’s still more than respectable.

Serves 4-6

3 tablespoons unsalted butter
½ medium onion, finely chopped
¼ cup all-purpose flour
2½ cups chicken broth (preferably that from cooking the chicken, see recipe)
Salt and whole black pepper in a mill
3 cups cooked, diced chicken (all breast or a mix of light and dark meat, see recipe)
1 cup diced celery
½ cup sliced scallions or other green onions
1 8-ounce can sliced water chestnuts, drained
½ cup mayonnaise
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
½ cup slivered almonds
1½ cups canned French-fried onion rings, crushed ruffled potato chips, or crushed butter crackers

1. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350° F. Put the butter and chopped onion in a heavy-bottomed 2-3-quart pan over medium heat. Sauté until the onion is translucent and softened but not colored, about 3-4 minutes. Whisk in the flour and whisk until bubbly and smooth. Slowly whisk in the broth. Bring it to a simmer, stirring constantly, and simmer until thick, about 3-4 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and simmer 2-3 minutes longer. Turn off the heat and let it cool slightly.

2. Fold the chicken, celery, scallions, and water chestnuts into the sauce, then fold in the mayonnaise and lemon juice. Butter a 2½-quart or 9-by-13-inch casserole and turn the chicken mixture into it. Spread evenly and smooth to level the top. Sprinkle evenly with the almonds and onion rings, crushed potato chips, or crushed crackers and bake until bubbly and lightly browned on top, about 30 minutes. Serve hot.

Slow-Simmered Chicken Breasts or Whole Chicken for Casseroles
Use bone-in chicken, even if you’re only cooking breast meat. Not only is it much cheaper, it’ll take exactly one minute to skin and bone it when it’s done and the chicken meat (especially the breast) stays moist and will have far more flavor.
Makes About 3 cups cooked, shredded or diced chicken and about 4 cups broth

2½ pounds (about 2 medium) bone-in chicken breasts with skin or 1 3½-4-pound whole chicken, cut up as for frying
1 medium yellow onion, trimmed, split, peeled, and thinly sliced
1 large leafy rib celery, sliced but with leafy top left whole
1 large carrot, peeled, and sliced
1 large sprig parsley
½ teaspoon peppercorns
2-3 quarter-sized slices fresh gingerroot
Chicken broth or water

1. Put the chicken in a heavy-bottomed 3-4-quart Dutch oven. Add the onion, celery, carrot, parsley, peppercorns, and gingerroot. Completely cover it with broth or water and add a small pinch (a large one if not using broth) salt. Loosely cover and bring to a simmer over medium heat, reduce the heat to medium-low, and simmer until the chicken is fork tender, about 45 minutes to 1 hour.

2. Using tongs, remove the chicken from the pan and let it cool enough to handle, then skin and bone it. Return the skin and bones to the pot and continue simmering the broth for another 30-45 minutes—longer won’t hurt it. Meanwhile, roughly shred the meat and cover.

3. Strain the broth and skim off the excess fat or let settle, chill, and remove fat when solidified.

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