Cool summer dinner idea: Chicken Salad with Toasted Coconut and Roasted Cashews

by Terry B on May 27, 2009

Served over a bed of mixed greens, Chicken Salad with Toasted Coconut and Roasted Cashews is light, lively and mayonnaise-free—a modern Chinese take on a summer classic. Recipe below.

chicken-salad-marion

You can never have too many chicken salad recipes, especially with summer now unofficially upon us. This Chinese-based version Marion makes is one of our favorites. Make it once and it’ll be a favorite of yours too. I’ll let Marion tell you about it.

One of my favorite cooking resources is the China Moon Cookbook, by the wonderful Barbara Tropp, one of the great interpreters of Chinese cooking for the American kitchen. If you’re an American cook who has explored Chinese cuisine, you’ve been affected by Tropp’s amazing work. She is often likened to Julia Child, and the comparison is apt. She, too, came to an intriguing strange land, and through its food learned to understand its culture. And she, too, returned to the United States to teach what she had learned to American cooks. As the San Francisco Chronicle wrote in her obituary, “Freshness, seasonality and authenticity were the hallmark of Ms. Tropp’s cooking at a time when much U.S. Chinese cooking relied on canned staples and hackneyed pseudo-Cantonese dishes.”

china-moon-troppShe began her great work around the time that California cuisine was hitting its stride. In fact, many people regard her as the mother of fusion cuisine. In her brief life, she gave us two books, each important in its own way—The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking, a magnum opus of the essential Chinese dishes and techniques, full of respect and erudition and inspiring delicate explanations about this great cuisine and the dynamic balance that is the heart of Chinese food and the culture that created it; and the China Moon Cookbook, the outgrowth of her marvelous San Francisco restaurant China Moon Café.

China Moon Cookbook is what happens when a smart, talented chef marries her training in classic Chinese techniques with the bold thinking and superb ingredients and focus on absolute freshness and artisan products of California cuisine. I just love this cookbook, and I can’t say enough about the thousand ways it has influenced my cooking over the years. Some home cooks find it frustrating—Tropp believed in absolute authenticity, so some of the recipes require making three or four other not that simple things first, with the concomitant hunting down of the right ingredients and then, sometimes, lavishing considerable effort just to prepare that particular oil or pickle.

Times are different now. Decent versions of many of these components are widely available on store shelves today. Some things you just have to make yourself [i.e., roasted Szechwan pepper-salt, a staple at our house] but with others, I say go with the lazy man’s way to riches.

This salad, based on one of my favorite China Moon recipes, includes one such time-saver. It’s a wonderful dish to serve at a lunch for company or a casual weekend dinner. When the weather is miserably hot and muggy, this is just so refreshing. It has some zippy ingredients—pickled ginger! chili flakes!—but it is not all fiery tasting. The flavor is crisp and alive and yet surprisingly gentle. Begin this dish well in advance of the time you plan to serve it. You can even start it the day before, to give the chicken plenty of time to cool.

Chicken Salad with Toasted Coconut and Roasted Cashews
Serves 4 or 5

For the salad
About 1-1/2 lb boneless chicken breast, sliced on the diagonal so the pieces are approximately the same thickness
1/4 cup sweetened, toasted coconut flakes [from about 1/3 cup untoasted—see Kitchen Notes]
1/2 cup roasted, unsalted cashews
1 red bell pepper, sliced into slivers
1-1/2 tablespoons pickled ginger [we use Wel-Pac brand]
1/4 cup coriander leaves, plus a few for garnish
1 cup sliced cucumber
Mesclun lettuce mix
Crispy rice sticks [optional—see Kitchen Notes]

For the dressing
3 tablespoons juice from pickled ginger [see Kitchen Notes]
1 teaspoon white vinegar or white balsamic vinegar
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon dried red chili flakes
1/4 cup olive oil
One stick lemongrass [optional]

Sauté the chicken in canola oil, salting it very lightly. When the pieces are just cooked through, put them in a container, cover and refrigerate until chilled.

Prepare the dressing. In a small bowl, add the pickled ginger juice, salt, the vinegar, chili flakes and olive oil. Stir so the flavors begin melding together. If you would like to add the lemongrass, for a subtle fascinating addition, do so now—peel the tough outer leaves and discard them, cut the lemongrass into two-inch pieces, crush them with the side of your knife and add to the dressing. Cover the dressing and set it aside. If you are starting this the night before, refrigerate. Before mixing the dressing into the salad, discard the lemongrass chunks.

Prepare the cucumber. After washing it, score the sides lengthwise with the tines of a fork. Continue all around the cucumber. Then cut the cucumber into thin slices. This gives the cucumber coins a handsome flowery look.

An hour before you intend to serve, put a platter in the refrigerator to chill it [see Kitchen Notes].

Assemble the salad. First, slice the chicken into bite-sized fairly uniform pieces and place them in a bowl. In that same bowl, add the sliced bell pepper, cucumber coins, roasted cashews, about a cup of the crispy rice sticks if you are using them, the coconut flakes, almost all the coriander leaves, and the pickled ginger. Toss with your hands to make sure everything is evenly mixed. Once the solids are mixed together in the bowl, stream in the dressing and mix with a big spoon. Then take the chilled platter out of the fridge and make a bed of mesclun on it. Heap the chicken salad attractively onto the lettuce leaves. Garnish with a few coriander leaves and serve.

This is very nice with a crisp white wine, or, as Tropp would say: have it with a good cold beer.

Kitchen Notes

Toasting the coconut [insert your own joke here]. Coconut shrinks dramatically when you toast it this way—I recommend cooking what well may be a bit too much, and measuring after you cook. Begin with about 1/3 cup of sweetened coconut from the package. Toast the flakes in a nonstick dry skillet over moderate heat. Toss and stir the flakes constantly until the coconut is golden. Watch carefully—if it blackens, throw it out and start anew. As soon as the coconut is golden, move it quickly from the pan into a bowl. When it has cooled, store in an airtight container.

Crispy rice sticks—a really fun option. Crispy rice sticks are made by deep frying Chinese rice stick pasta.  The best part of crispy rice sticks is making them. Heat canola oil to 375ºF. Use a candy thermometer if you have one. Otherwise, to test, drop a fragment of uncooked rice stick in the oil. It will immediately puff and turn snowy white. Remove it from the heat using a slotted spoon or ladle [we like the Chinese open wire ladle with the bamboo handle for this job]. To cook a batch, quickly drop a small handful of uncooked rice sticks into the oil—if the oil is at the proper temperature, the sticks puff up instantly and look like snowy white styrene wires. Scoop them out immediately and set them on paper towels to drain.

This is one of the funnest things you will ever make. On a day when you are glum and bored, this will cheer you up straightaway. Your biggest problem with making crispy rice sticks will be that you will find it hard to stop making them, it is just so amusing. The second-biggest problem is that once you’ve made them, they are not all that good for you, being deep fried and all, and also they don’t taste like much of anything. That’s why I have relegated this to the Kitchen Notes gulag. I don’t think crispy rice sticks add to this recipe, but I had to tell you about them because they are so much fun to make. Once you have made them, store in an airtight container at the back of your pantry, out of sight, until you stumble upon them during some future cleaning frenzy, or the next time you move.

Pickled ginger—take your pick. The original recipe calls for China Moon Pickled Ginger, Tropp’s own recipe, found in the cookbook. At our house, of course, we go with the shortcut, and so we purchase commercially made Japanese pickled ginger. You can find both untinted, natural ginger and ginger that has been dyed red. For this dish, the red stuff is much cuter. The little red bits look nice in the salad, and the ginger juice gives the dressing a pink tint. It’s just nice.

Plate or platter? Up to you. Instead of serving from a single big platter, you may plate individually. If you go the platter route, chilling it ahead of time will help keep the salad crisp and fresh tasting.

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{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Desmone007 May 27, 2009 at 2:41 am

Yumm! I love the addition of the toasted coconut and pickled ginger…very interesting recipe. Thanks!

Allison Lemons May 27, 2009 at 3:10 am

My cooking is severely lacking toasted coconut. I’ve never tried toasting it before but you’ve convinced me. The dressing also sounds amazing. I’m always looking for new ways to use lemongrass. In NY I paid $1/stalk for lemongrass – here in Berkeley, the farmers’ markets have it for a quarter of the price!

Carol May 27, 2009 at 12:17 pm

Pickled ginger, rice sticks, lemon grass–Oh My! Thanks for introducing me to this talented culinary anthropologist of China Moon. What a lyrical name, like a song. This recipe looks like a marriage of bold and subtle textures and flavors that make one’s taste buds go, ‘Wow, that’s uncommonly marvelous.’

My better half makes a granola using a hard-to-find coconut flake, from Melissa’s.com. Not sure if it would enhance or detract from this recipe but almost all store-bought coconut is shredded nowadays.

Thanks too for describing how to prepare lemongrass. I had no idea.

Kim, Ordinary Recipes Made Gourmet May 27, 2009 at 12:25 pm

I completely agree that you can NEVER have too many chicken salad recipes! There’s just so much you can do and when I make it, I never use the same ingredients…sometimes I like it spicy, sometimes I like it more subtle but it’s always good!!!!! I’ve gotten hubby to eat salad more which is good!

altadenahiker May 27, 2009 at 3:01 pm

Looks delicious. I will rent this cookbook.

Laura May 27, 2009 at 7:39 pm

Oh I’ve heard of this book, but am mortified to say I never checked it out. You have completely inspired me! I’m totally into this salad by the way, it sounds like the perfect thing to bring to work for lunch, and I happen to have a bag of coconut sitting on my counter from when I made green beans from Hot Salty Sour Sweet.

Christina May 27, 2009 at 11:00 pm

Oh, this is SO going to get made now that it is warmed up. Thank you, Marion, for your great recipe.

Lydia May 27, 2009 at 11:16 pm

That book has had a place on my bookshelf for many, many years. My only problem with it is that every recipe seems to have many components that must be made before you can make the final dish. But oh, those final dishes — always divine.

Marion May 28, 2009 at 12:49 am

Desmone007, thanks! It really is interesting.

Allison Lemons, if you are using lemongrass as an aromatic in a stir-fry, then cut off the root part, peel off all the tough outer leaves and just use the tender innermost part, cut fine.

Thanks, Carol! I’m checking out that website tonight.

Kim, the one thing with this recipe is that it’s not all that low in fat. (Or, as Altadenahiker would say, yay!) Coconut, almonds, those rice sticks–but it is just real good.

Altadenahiker – look for her other book, too, the first one.

Laura, you really will like the book. And speaking of untried books, we still haven’t explored Hot Sour Salty Sweet.

Christina, you are most welcome!

Lydia, they really are divine.

dani May 28, 2009 at 4:19 am

This sounds like the perfect summer lunch! And thank you for the introduction to the China Moon Cookbook.

Did you ever see the movie Mr. Mom with Michael Keaton? I think he fixed the crispy rice sticks. I’m definitely going to pick some up to fix with my grandchildren.

ToKissTheCook May 28, 2009 at 2:59 pm

This legitimately looks/sounds amazing. So much great flavor and a perfect lunch pick-me-up.

Kevin May 29, 2009 at 12:26 am

That is one really nice looking chicken salad!

Mellen May 30, 2009 at 3:59 am

Friends, this was SUCH an amazing recipe! Thank you. We did it for dinner tonight, and what we both loved about it was that, for all the thousands and thousands of things that we have cooked and enjoyed, this was absolutely unique. NOTHING either of us has ever made tasted like this, and it was SO Good! It’s really hard for people like us, who cook up a storm every day, ever to find something truly new, and this was it. I can’t even describe the taste well (as a writer I should be able to, but I’m at a loss). It was such a marriage of so many flavors, but nothing dominated. It was sweet and subtly fiery and luscious and incredibly fresh and…well, just unctuous in a light way.

Not to mention that Steve had a smashed collarbone and surgery yesterday, and I picked him up from the hospital this morning, and “glum” would be an understatement, and frying those rice noodles was just the fun sport we needed! I agree, I can see doing that on a rainy day or just to show off for friends – what a hoot! We decided there are no two fried rice noodles alike, just like snowflakes! We fried WAY more than we needed just for the sport of it!

Thanks for a total winner of a recipe. And get yourselves here to DC to stay with us ASAP!

altadenahiker May 30, 2009 at 3:09 pm

Meant to ask you two: Did you get a chance to look through the Lulu Provencal Table book? Curious to know what you thought.

Marion May 31, 2009 at 4:59 am

Dani, thank you! I remember that movie only dimly, but crispy rice sticks definitely are the stuff of comedy.

To Kiss the Cook – that is just right.

Kevin – thanks. I think you’ll like eating it too.

Mellen—Nine lines of praise about chicken salad before you, oh, mention that Steve smashed his collarbone?!? I guess you really did like it. Regarding coming to DC, I’m afraid we can’t possibly come until Steve is sufficiently recovered to help with our luggage. Just kidding. Will call soon and make plans. Thank you so much!

Terry B May 31, 2009 at 5:04 am

altadenahiker—One of the hazards of “renting” books from the library is that they eventually want them back. Didn’t manage to spend enough time with it to try a recipe, but know that I’ll be “renting” it again before long to take another stab at it.

Susan from Food Blogga June 1, 2009 at 6:03 pm

The colors of this salad are so inviting, Terry. I also love using lemongrass. Its flavor and fragrance are so lovely.

Debbie June 2, 2009 at 6:46 pm

What a GORGEOUS and yummy looking salad! It sounds like a fantastic option for summer!!! Thank you for posting such lovely pictures to make my mouth water!

Carey June 7, 2009 at 3:10 am

ok… Completely awesome! really and truly a great salad.
Thanks!

Carey July 27, 2013 at 11:00 am

So glad I found this again- it is perfect for a hot day!

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