Chicken salad, that summertime classic, often suffers from Chewy Chicken Syndrome, a pitfall that requires a tightrope walk to avoid.
You want to build the recipe around white meat chicken – the perfect foil for its mayonnaise-based sauce – but you don’t want to overcook it, an easy thing to do given white meat’s leanness. (And if you do happen to overcook it, you might as well kiss it goodbye. It’ll end up about as tender as a pencil eraser.)
Accordingly, this recipe mimics the cooking process called sous vide to guarantee that the chicken turns out tender. Without going into a lengthy explanation, let’s just say that the premise of sous vide is to cook the item at a temperature no higher than the one at which you want it to end up. That way it can never be overcooked. In this case the outer limit for the internal temperature is 165 degrees, the heat at which you can be sure that any bacteria have been killed.
Here the chicken is cooked in chicken broth, which deepens the flavor of both the chicken and the broth. You’ll start by heating the broth to 170F, not 165F, because the temp drops slightly when the chicken is added. Then cover the pan and pull it off the burner, allowing the chicken to cook gently in the lingering heat of the broth. (To make sure you don’t undercook it, cut into the thickest piece of chicken after it rests for 20 minutes and, if necessary, reheat it briefly to finish the process.)
What puts this chicken salad over the top? Salting the tomatoes to remove excess water and make them more tomato-y and pureeing the basil leaves in a food processor to make them more basil-y. Lastly, we borrow one of the features that makes a New England lobster roll so magnificent — serving the chicken salad in a buttered, toasted hot dog bun.
Start to finish: 1 hour 20 minutes (20 active)
1 to 1 ¼ pounds boneless skinless chicken breasts (not thin sliced) about ¾-inch thick
6 cups chicken broth
2 cups cherry tomatoes, halved or quartered if large
6 ounces bacon
¾ cup mayonnaise
1 1/2 cups packed fresh basil leaves
2 teaspoons lemon zest and 1 ½ tablespoons fresh lemon juice
6 hot dog buns
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
baby romaine lettuce leaves for garnish
In a medium saucepan combine the chicken with the broth and heat the pan over medium heat until it registers 170 F. Remove the pan from the heat, cover the pan and let it stand 20 minutes. (Cut into the thickest part of the thickest chicken breast and if you see any pink reheat the chicken briefly.) Transfer the chicken to a bowl and let it cool. When cool, cut into ½-inch cubes. Strain the broth, cover and either chill or freeze it for future use.
Meanwhile, sprinkle the tomatoes lightly with salt, and let them stand for 15 minutes.
In a large skillet cook the bacon over medium heat until crisp, about 5 minutes and transfer to paper towels to drain. When cool, crumble.
In a food processor combine the mayonnaise, basil, lemon zest and juice and puree until smooth. Add a little water if the dressing is too thick to pour.
Using a serrated knife, slice off and discard the side crusts of the hot dog buns. Brush the cut sides with the butter. In a large nonstick skillet toast the buttered sides of the hot dog buns over medium heat until they are golden brown.
Using paper towels gently pat dry the tomatoes. In a large bowl combine the chicken, dressing, tomatoes and bacon and stir gently just until combined.
To serve: Put a piece of lettuce inside each toasted bun and mound the chicken salad on top.