One of the most important lessons I learned as a young, professional chef was that presentation is everything. Even in the finest of restaurants you can serve the most mundane of foods if you create a spectacular, or beautiful, way to present it. Soups were a classic example of this. Many of the soups we made, at some of the best restaurants, I worked at, in Chicago, Atlanta and New Orleans, were soups that people make at home every day. The only difference was in the presentation. Vegetables were not roughly chopped, but meticulously cut into perfect little cubes. Creative garnishes were employed to add a focal point or a bit of flourish, and soups were often poured tableside to create a sense of “theater.”
Soups weren’t the only foods to receive this treatment. Pulled Pork, became Barbecued Duck with smoked and shredded duck leg meat tossed in a light barbecue sauce and molded into a tower. Fried Smelt, instead of just being dumped on a plate, were stacked like Lincoln Logs and served with tartar sauces made with unusual ingredients. Mac & Cheese, served not as a main dish, but flavored with blue cheese and bacon, baked into individual portions, and used as a side to accompany a Filet Mignon.
With that in mind, today’s post is a very simple, rather ordinary recipe for chicken salad. Chicken Salad is classic diner and café lunch fair, and not usually very exciting (although quite tasty in my opinion), but not really known for being very exciting. But with the addition of something as simple as a fresh herb (in this case tarragon, although a number of herbs would work great) and a novel presentation it is elevated to something special.
2 pounds Chicken breast, boneless & skinless
2 stalks Celery
1/2 cup Onion
1 1/2 Tbl. Tarragon, fresh, finely minced
1 cup Mayonnaise
12 slices Bread, white
Place chicken breasts in a pot and cover with water. Salt generously and bring water to just below a simmer (small bubbles will appear along the bottom and sides of the pot but they do not break the surface). Poach the chicken for 10 minutes, turn off the heat, and allow the chicken to remain in the water for another 10 minutes. Then chill. Meanwhile, finely dice the celery and onion. You want to cut them into what is called a “bruniose” which are small cubes measuring 1/8″x1/8″x1/8″. They don’t have to be exact but you want something small and relatively uniform. Slice the cucumbers paper thin. If you have a mandolin it would help a lot, but if not, take your time and use it as a chance to practice your knife skills.
Once the chicken is chilled, dice the chicken into a 1/4″ dice. Again it doesn’t have to be perfect, but you want something very close to that size and relatively uniform. Combine chicken with the cut celery and onion, the tarragon and the mayonnaise. Season, to taste, with salt and pepper.
Toast the 12 slices of bread. Using a large, round cutter, cut 12 disks out of the bread. To plate, lay down a ring of cucumber slices, overlapping them slightly and keeping them off of the rim of the plate. Using the same ring that you used to cut the bread, place the ring in the center of the plate and place 1 disk of bread in the bottom. Top with a couple spoonfuls of chicken salad, packing it down. Top with another slice of bread and more chicken salad. Smooth the top layer of chicken salad and remove the ring. Finally cover the top of the “sandwich” with cucumber slices, overlapping them and tucking the last one underneath the first one to create a swirl pattern on top.