Evolution of a Go-To Recipe: Main Dish Salad with Grilled Chicken, Fruit, and Poppy Seed Dressing

 Most cooks who have been in the kitchen for any length of time have at least a handful of standby recipes, dishes they make again and again because they are extra-delicious, easy, or versatile. Go-to recipes are the culinary equivalent of a habit, which is not a bad thing at all if they are well chosen.
Some standby recipes stay the same, and their very sameness makes eating them a re-visitation of memories. Some, however, evolve, and that can be just as wonderful, like a reunion with a childhood friend where you see traces of what was in the past but there is much to discover in the here and now.

photo credit: Tori Luther
This salad is an evolver. The inspiration for it came from a salad I had for lunch at Olive Garden at least fifteen years ago, when eating there was still a novelty. That salad, as I recall, had greens, shredded carrots, cantaloupe, grapes, strawberries, toasted coconut, grilled chicken, and a sweet/sour dressing without, I think, poppy seeds. I really, really liked it, but I couldn’t quite figure out the dressing. Then some months later when I was re-reading an old Junior League cookbook, I came across a recipe for poppy seed dressing. The large amount of sugar gave me pause – could this be similar to the Olive Garden dressing? Yes! So, I made this salad every summer during strawberry season for a few years, and everybody except one kid loved it. Finally, after I had one of my biggest culinary epiphanies – the one that set me free from slavish recipe use, the one when I realized most cooking involves formulas in which components can be adapted within the framework of the formula – I saw that the basic components of the salad are:
allium (onion family)
sweet dressing
Eureka! The adaptations are endless.  I can take that original Olive Garden salad and mix and match ingredients according to season, budget, taste, and availability.
greens – romaine, mesclun, arugula, Bibb, leaf lettuce
fruit – strawberries, peaches, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, nectarines, apricots, apples, melon, grapes, (even roasted butternut squash cubes)
allium (onion family) – red onion, other onion, scallion, chives, garlic, shallot
nut – toasted pecans, walnuts, almonds or sweet and spicy pecans or other nuts
protein – chicken, pork tenderloin, shrimp, salmon, tofu, goat cheese, feta, other cheese (or the protein can be left out and the salad becomes a first course or side dish)
dressing – sweet (poppy seed, maple, apple cider, PA Dutch warm bacon) or not
We served a version of this at the girls camp a couple of weeks ago. It met my criteria for girly, pamper-y food, but guys always dig it, too. There were many requests for recipes of the dishes at camp, so this is the first “release” of those. I am sharing it here as we served it there, but do use your own creativity to adapt it at will. Below the dressing and salad recipe is how I make my sweet and spicy pecans, although plain toasted nuts are just fine on this salad.
Lori’s Poppy Seed Dressing
 Makes 1 ½ cups
½ c. granulated sugar
1 t. dry mustard
1 t. salt
2 t. poppy seeds (these aren’t necessary for flavor, but they are pretty)
1 t. paprika
¼ c. apple cider vinegar (or other vinegar)
1 c. mild vegetable oil (canola)
Combine all ingredients except oil.  Whisking constantly, add oil by driblets.  As about 1/3 of it gets incorporated, the oil may be added a bit faster, in a thin, steady stream.
Food processor method:  Process to mix all ingredients except oil.  With machine running, add oil in a thin, steady stream.
Serve over fresh fruit or with green salad with fruit and grilled chicken.  Keeps very well in the refrigerator.
For grilled chicken for the salad, you can use anything from cheap bottled Italian dressing to your own marinade made with whatever is plentiful in the herb bed.  A favorite combination:
¼ c. lemon juice or vinegar
½ t. salt
½ t. pepper
1-2 T. minced garlic
handful chopped fresh basil
1 c. combination of canola and olive oil
Mix ingredients in a gallon Ziploc bag.  Add skinless, boneless chicken and seal, removing as much air as possible.  Place on a baking sheet and refrigerate up to 8 hours. Turn bag over if you think of it.  Grill or sauté chicken, discarding marinade.  Cut meat into strips and use to top salads composed of romaine, slivered red or other onion, red and green grapes (we did not use at camp, but they are very good in this salad), fresh strawberries (or blueberries or other berries; at camp we used blackberries), cantaloupe cubes, toasted pecans, and toasted coconut (optional but delicious).  Drizzle with dressing and serve immediately, while the juxtaposition of warm chicken and cool, crisp salad remains.
Lori’s Sweet and Spicy Pecans
Makes 2 cups
2 T. melted butter
¼ c. granulated sugar, divided
1 t. seasoned salt
½ t. garlic or onion salt
1/8 cayenne pepper
2 c. pecans, chopped or left in halves (can use other nuts)
1.     Preheat oven to 350 degrees; rack centered. Line baking sheet with foil.
2.     In a bowl, mix 2 T. sugar with butter and seasonings. Mix in the nuts until well-coated. Pour onto baking sheet; spread to one layer.
3.     Bake for 10-15 minutes, until fragrant and golden brown.
4.     Return to the bowl; stir in remaining 2 T. sugar. Cool completely. Store in airtight container. Keeps a long time at room temp and forever in the freezer.
These are great in green salads that contain fruit, and they are pretty addictive as a snack.

Campers, look in the Recipes page near the top of the screen or click here to find Tomato Basil Tarts and Chopped Salad, too.

Have you had a great salad this summer? Tell us about it!

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  1. Posted August 27, 2012 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    Yumm! This sounds delicious. I just pinned it on Pinterest so I can find it later.

  2. Posted August 27, 2012 at 9:26 pm | Permalink

    I’m looking forward to trying your poppyseed dressing. I just love those sweet creamy dressings. Just got some poppyseeds from a bulk food market too! Perfect!

  3. Posted August 27, 2012 at 11:17 pm | Permalink

    I had some of your left over spicy pecans, YUM! Looking forward to trying the dressing too. Thanks for sharing, Lori!

    • Posted August 28, 2012 at 7:33 am | Permalink

      Hi, Holly! I actually don’t usually use those nuts on salad with this dressing, because both have so much flavor going on. I most often use them on salads with greens, allium, one or two fruits, and some kind of cheese — usually winter salads with mango, grapefruit, or oranges with a non-sweet vinaigrette. Let me know how you like the dressing.

  4. Posted August 28, 2012 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    I just ate a salad at Wendy’s yesterday. It was SO good. It had mixed field greens, grilled chicken, blueberries, strawberries, shaved asiago (I think) cheese, sliced almonds, with a fat free raspberry vinigrette. It was really refreshing. I liked the dressing very much. It was not too vinegary and had a sweet “juicy” flavor. Mmmmmm!

    • Posted August 28, 2012 at 11:14 am | Permalink

      That sounds terrific, Becky! Back when I first tasted the Olive Garden version of this salad, fruit with greens and nuts and cheese was a new thing, but now I see versions of them everywhere. It’s interesting to watch food styles evolve, isn’t it?

  • Your comment is the best part of this blog! Share what’s on your mind here.

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