THE WASHINGTON POST – I never get tired of chicken salad. Maybe that’s because that recipe title can refer to seemingly endless combinations of ingredients and flavours to suit any mood or whatever we might have on hand.
If you search for ‘chicken salad’ in The Washington Post’s Recipe Finder, you will find nearly a dozen kinds, from mayonnaise- and tahini-based to mixtures with abundant chopped vegetables, nuts and fresh herbs.
When I got an advance copy of Simply: Easy Everyday Dishes by Sabrina Ghayour, I was immediately drawn to her light chicken salad made with rice noodles and a dressing flavoured with harissa that is spooned atop lettuce cups. It was a twist I had yet to try – and I’ve tried a lot of twists on this dish.
In her cookbook, the Iranian British author writes about being an only child whose parents did not cook. Rather than a negative, she viewed that as an opportunity, saying she was unencumbered by traditions or expectations, and that gave her space to experiment.
Her cookbook, Bazaar: Vibrant Vegetarian Recipes was one of The Post’s inspirational cookbooks of 2019. This one is equally intriguing. In it, Ghayour offers twists on traditional dishes, such as green hummus made with parsley, cilantro and tarragon. The ingredient lists are tight because, Ghayour noted, if she can strip one item out, she does.
While the chicken salad falls in The Melting Pot chapter, I’d consider it a twist on tradition as well. The dish calls for poached chicken and just a few ounces of rice noodles as well as raw carrots and tender green beans all tossed in a spicy-sweet dressing.
For her salad, she makes the dressing with harissa, the chilli paste used in North African and Middle Eastern cooking that is made with peppers, olive oil, garlic and various spices. Ghayour calls for the version of the paste made with rose petals or rose water, which softens the chilli’s kick.
I am a sucker for sweet, citrusy dressing with a kick, and this one delivers just the right balance for the mild chicken and crunchy vegetables.
Ghayour makes a point of noting that we should all substitute and omit ingredients based on our personal taste. I agree, so I’ve since made this dish with sriracha and substituted the full bunch of cilantro for a mix of equal parts cilantro and parsley.
Serve it as a meal. Or, place the chicken mixture in a bowl with a tightfitting lid and you can enjoy the lettuce cups over several days – as a quick snack.
HARISSA CHICKEN NOODLE LETTUCE CUPS
This is a great way to use leftover chicken, or you can poach a couple of chicken breasts. Use the vegetables and herbs below, or substitute your favourites. The lettuce cups work well as a main dish or as a convenient snack; just keep the chicken-noodle mixture in the refrigerator and fill the lettuce cups as needed. The sweet-and-spicy dressing features rose harissa, a North African condiment made with dried rose petals and/or rose water, which soften the spice of the chillies, but any favourite chilli paste can be used.
The chicken-noodle mixture and the dressing can be refrigerated in separate airtight containers for up to three days. Store the lettuce separately.
Where to Buy
Rose harissa and nigella seeds can be found at Middle Eastern groceries or online. Vermicelli noodles can be found at well-stocked supermarkets, Asian grocery stores or online.
FOR THE LETTUCE CUPS
Two boneless, skinless chicken breasts
Three cups water
Three ounces rice vermicelli noodles or angel hair pasta
Two-and-a-half ounces French green beans, thinly sliced
Four scallions, thinly sliced
One medium carrot, cut into matchsticks (about 3/4 cup)
One bunch fresh cilantro, finely chopped
Two heads baby romaine or bibb lettuce
Freshly ground black pepper
Lime wedges, for serving (optional)
FOR THE DRESSING
Three tablespoons honey
One-and-a-half tablespoons rose harissa, or your favourite spicy chilli paste, such as sriracha, chilli-garlic paste, gochujang or sambal oelek, or more to taste
One tablespoon soy sauce, or more to taste
One-and-a-half tablespoons olive oil
Finely grated zest and juice of one lime, or more to taste
One teaspoon nigella seeds, or black or toasted sesame seeds
COOK THE CHICKEN
Cut the chicken in half or thirds crosswise, depending on how large the pieces are. In a medium saucepan over medium heat, bring the water to a gentle simmer – do not let the water come to a boil – and add the chicken. Reduce the heat to medium-low and gently cook until an instant-read thermometer registers 165 degrees when inserted into the thickest pieces of the chicken, 10 to 15 minutes.
When the chicken is done, use a slotted spoon to transfer it to a cutting board and let cool. Using two forks, shred the meat, then coarsely chop.
While the chicken is cooking, bring a medium pot of salted water to a boil. Turn off the heat and add the vermicelli or angel hair, letting it soak until tender, about five minutes. Drain and rinse with cold water.
Make the dressing
In a measuring cup or small bowl, combine the honey, rose harissa, soy sauce, olive oil, lime zest and juice, and nigella seeds. Taste and season with more harissa, soy sauce and/or lime zest/juice, if needed. Reserve two tablespoons of the dressing.
In a large bowl, combine the chicken, noodles, green beans, scallions, carrots and cilantro. Toss with the remainder of the dressing. Taste and season with more salt and pepper, as needed. Arrange the lettuce leaves on a serving platter. Divide the chicken-noodle mixture among the lettuce cups and drizzle with the reserved dressing. Serve, with lime wedges, if using.
Calories: 396; Total Fat: 11g; Saturated Fat: 2g; Cholesterol: 122mg; Sodium: 598mg; Carbohydrates: 33g; Dietary Fibre: 4g; Sugars: 16g; Protein: 42g.