What’s for lunch? Whatever-you’ve-got chicken salad

I wrote recently that I’m trying to eat more mindfully rather than just eating toast all day because it’s easy and convenient. For the most part I’m doing pretty well. It’s easy enough to make an egg or dish out some yogurt at breakfast time, and I’ve become disciplined enough about dinner time that most days, it’s a healthy, balanced meal.

But lunch has been a much bigger challenge. The middle of the day seems so busy, even when it does just consist of getting out the Playdoh, and putting it away, and getting it out, and putting it away. On the days that the kids are hanging out with Dad or with my friend who watches them a couple of days a week, I get so laser-focused on work that I often forget about lunch entirely…until I’m starving and grabbing at, you know, toast.

Can you relate? I’ve been working on coming up with healthy, filling, protein-packed lunch ideas that will keep me going until dinnertime, and I’m planning to share them here in a regular “What’s for lunch?” feature.

Up first? Whatever-you’ve-got chicken salad. I call it that because you really can make chicken salad out of…well, out of whatever you’ve got. (As long as some of what you’ve got is chicken, of course.)

First, let’s start with the chicken. One of the fastest, easiest and most foolproof ways to prep chicken for salad is poaching it. (You can find my method in step 3 of this post.) Then pull it apart with two forks, or slice into cubes.

Now what about the other elements of the salad? I’m guessing you have a lot of them on hand already, or can improvise. To me the essential elements of a good chicken salad are: crunch, sweetness, flavor, and “the glue”, plus the occasional extra ingredients, like egg, bacon, or black beans, for more protein or flavor. But what combination of ingredients you put together is completely up to you.

Here are some different ingredients you can try for each, but this list is not all-inclusive! Feel free to experiment.

CRUNCH:
Walnuts
Pecans
Pine Nuts
Celery
Green Onion

SWEETNESS:
Grapes
Apple
Raisins
Dried Cranberries
Candied Nuts

“THE GLUE”
Mayonnaise
Avocado
Sour Cream
Various oils

FLAVOR:
Salt
Pepper
Herbs and Spices
Lime or lemon juice

The Recipe:

Well, the good news (or bad news, depending on your perspective) is that you don’t really have to follow a recipe to make chicken salad.

In this case, I knew that I wanted to make a curried chicken salad. But I also knew that I didn’t want the curry flavor to be too strong, and that I wanted it to lean toward sweet instead of just savory. I looked at this Ina Garten recipe for inspiration, but really only followed the directions about proportions of mayo to chicken and improvised most of the rest.

There are about eight million chicken salad recipes online. Find one that seems close to what you’re looking for, and then improvise as needed.

My curry chicken salad contained:

Two chicken breasts
About a cup of mayo
Half a diced apple
About 1/4 cup of pine nuts
One hard-boiled egg, crumbled
A couple teaspoons of curry powder
Several squirts of lime juice (to taste)
4-5 turns of the salt grinder

I added the curry, lime and salt last, and just kept tasting until I got it the way I wanted it. Ta-da! In about five minutes (not counting the chicken poaching time) I had a healthy, protein packed salad that I managed to stretch into three lunches.

Some different ways I enjoyed my curried chicken salad salad:

  • On a bed of spinach, with a drizzle of olive oil and balsamic vinegar
  • Wrapped in a lettuce leaf
  • With a fork, straight out of the bowl.

I would have tried to eke out a few more creative serving ideas, but it was too good to ration!

Ready to try? A few more tips:

  • Consider cooking the chicken for your salad while you’re making dinner, since you’ll already be in the kitchen anyway. Or plan a chicken-based dinner and use the leftovers for salad.
  • If you don’t eat mayonnaise, search for a mayo-free recipe. And if you just don’t have any on hand, consider making your own! You’ll just need eggs, oil, lemon, salt and a few minutes.
  • Get creative. A chicken salad made with avocado, cilantro, black beans and sour cream will take on a completely different flavor from a basic “Sunday potluck” salad or the curried chicken salad I made. Mixing up the flavorings and accompaniment is what makes this a great go-to lunch staple.

I’d love to hear what’s on your lunch menu this week!

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