My children's school recently asked that I create a picnic dinner for 200-plus people for the annual auction meal. When I thought about it, the mechanics of packing food in a basket just isn't that easy. Things roll, tip, and spill. (This was dinner; sandwiches were never an option.)
I was seriously struggling to figure out simply how to pack the basket, when I re-discovered a recipe of my mother's I had always loved: an herb-layered chicken salad simply marinated in lots of olive oil, salt and pepper, and packed into a jar.
"Packed in a jar," the words that saved me. A jar is the most transportable vessel there is. Civilizations have successfully packed foods in jars —clay and otherwise — and gone on picnics or voyages for centuries.
This chicken salad's list of virtues is long: It can — and must — be made ahead so that the flavors infuse. Can you imagine my relief when I realized I could prepare this dinner for 200 three days in advance?
It is flavorful, not something easily achieved in room temperature picnic food. The olive oil's unctuousness carries the piney herbs and the snap of the salt.
Not only that, iconic rosemary, garlic and olive oil are friendly with so many tastes. From this jarred dish, I went on to two others I knew would just get better made in advance: David Lebovitz' lentil salad with shallots and mustard and Do Chua, the Vietnamese vegetable salad packed with sesame oil, rice wine vinegar, ginger and cilantro. The chicken was happy on the plate with the ginger and cilantro, and the mustard and shallot. Just spread on a crusty bread it was glorious.
After long-ago dismissing sandwiches, our food committee laughed when we saw people carefully laying chicken down upon opened baguette, picking up their rosemary chicken salad sandwich in two hands, taking a bite, and looking very happy.
While we were preparing the salad, pulling apart the chicken meat, we tossed the bones back into the broth in which it had cooked. As we plucked the rosemary sprigs, we tossed the stems into the broth, too. Another hour on the stove simmering bones and herbs resulted in one of the most delicious broths imaginable, just one more gift this recipe provides.
Lastly, the chicken is beautiful: layers of white breast meat, verdant rosemary and golden olive oil look like Food Art through the glass of the jar.
Rosemary Chicken Salad in a Jar
5 organic chicken breasts halves, bone-in
1 carrot, chopped coarse
1 onion, quartered
2 garlic cloves (for the broth)
fine sea salt to taste
freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 to 11/4 cups extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup fresh rosemary leaves, chopped, reserving 2 or 3 sprigs for decoration
10 garlic cloves chopped loosely in a food processor
4 cup Ball jar, or similar glass jar with a lid
In an 8-to 9-quart kettle combine chicken, carrot, onion, 2 cloves of garlic, salt, pepper, and enough water to cover chicken completely. Bring mixture to a boil, skimming any foam that rises to surface, and simmer, covered, just until chicken is tender, about 25 minutes.
Remove kettle from heat and let chicken cool completely, uncovered, in poaching liquid. Remove chicken from liquid and shred, discarding bones. Put meat into a large bowl.
Toss chopped rosemary, chopped garlic, salt and pepper all over the chicken. Drizzle some good glugs of the oil over all, and toss to distribute the ingredients equally. Taste the salad. It will definitely need more salt and oil, so keep drizzling and tasting. It needs much more oil and salt than you realize, so keep adding, tossing gently, and tasting until it's delicious.
When you are ready to spoon the salad into the jar, put about a half a cup of chicken into the bottom. Stand the reserved sprigs of rosemary up so they press against the jar sides, pressing the stems into the first layer of chicken to hold them in place. Spoon in the remaining chicken to fill the jar, making sure the rosemary stays attractively against the sides. Drizzle a last tablespoon of olive oil over all, and close it up.
Chill for at least one day and up to three days, turning the jar occasionally to distribute the oil. Let jar stand at room temperature at least 1 hour before serving.
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Food for Thought runs weekly in the Times' Taste of the Times section and is written by Heather Atwood, an author and mother from Rockport. Questions and comments can be sent to Heather at firstname.lastname@example.org. And follow her blog at www.heatheratwood.com.