Roast chicken breast, sliced and sprinkled with fresh tarragon + melon balls or chunks + feta cheese + crunchy seeds and filo crumbs = an excellent salad.
What is a salad?
‘Salad’ is possibly the vaguest and the most blanket culinary notion. Compare a chicken salad with mayo and pasta in it with green leaf salad and you’ll see my point.
You could say that it is a combination of assorted foods served cold, but there are warm salads too. It should be a savoury dish by definition – the word comes from Latin salata meaning ‘salted’ – but what about fruit salad?
There are raw salads and cooked salads, meat salads and vegetarian salads, pasta salads and seafood salads. If I wanted to list most common types of salad it would still take me all day.
I could settle on a definition of ‘mixed foods cut into pieces served combined together’ but I risk being countered with a garden salad of whole green leaves. It’s a real salad bowl of problems!
Bad salad, good salad
It is easy to produce a bad salad. Pile a bunch of rocket leaves and pretend it’s a salad. Slather a coleslaw in so much mayo it feels gloopy or, on the contrary, mix some greens and tomatoes without a drop of dressing. Get the textures wrong – like overcooked pasta in a salad – or mix too many ingredients together, as if it was a rubbish bin.
But it’s just as easy to make a very good salad. In my books it needs a balance of soft and crunchy, juicy and dry, sweet and sharp. Can you invent a new salad?
Of course you can: it is the best kind of dish to be creative about. But it is important to note that the right combination is the key and the secret, hence the classic pairings of tomatoes and soft cheese, feta and cucumbers, walnuts and apple, anchovies and Parmesan.
Just imagine you had your chosen ingredients together on a plate and decide whether it would look, sound and smell appetising.
How I composed my chicken and melon salad
My chicken and melon salad came about the usual way: chicken, melon and avocado was what I had in the fridge and I was in need of a dinner.
I started with a chicken fillet which was all right as chicken fillets go and boring as hell. I didn’t fancy another creamy chicken, it was too hot for fried, and I wanted to minimise cooking.
I roasted the chicken then with some sharp flavours on it. What next? I really didn't want another polite sliced chicken sitting atop green lettuce, with only a tomato half here and there for company.
But I also had a melon and some feta, plus a just-ripening avocado in the fruit bowl. Why not, I thought. Feta and watermelon is a done thing in Greece so a melon wouldn’t be far off.
And I assumed, perhaps sweepingly, that since both the melon (cantaloupe) and avocado were green, they would go together well.
How to season a chicken salad?
Unless smothered in mayo, a roast chicken fillet will only sing if paired with tarragon. It’s such a good flavour! Freshly chopped tarragon leaves on warm, freshly cooked chicken work wonders. And then the feta which warms up a little from the chicken, and the green elements: fancy-balled or just diced.
The melon juice makes the dressing. The crunch, which in my view is obligatory on a salad, is provided in an ordinary manner by toasted pumpkin seeds and extraordinarily by filo crumbs.
(The latter is such a good simple invention I’ll be writing about it much, much more on another, perhaps sweet, occasions.)
But all it is here is a buttered or oiled sheet of filo, baked, then shattered into shards - the perfect salad topping.
And so an apparently random salad turned out so well I have been making it again and again.
More chicken salad recipes
Caesar salad, the classic, or my twisted version with chicken nuggets must be mentioned as first. It’s one chicken dish I’ll never get bored of.
A wholesome, filling and satisfying dish which is also good for weight loss – that’s chicken couscous salad. Use leftover roast chicken, rotisserie-bought one permitted.
Bang bang chicken made the authentic way is poached, shredded chicken served with crunchy vegetables and a mind-blowing peanut butter sauce.
More melon recipes
Smoked salmon with melon is a less common and as good a match as Parma ham and melon combo.
Watermelon and feta salad is the simplest summery perfection, the salty-sweet combo in the most refreshing form. Whole or half a watermelon is really easy to prepare and much better value than prepacked tubs.
And a no-recipe recipe: try ripe melon slices with whipped cream and a drizzle of honey – it’s astonishing!
More feta salad recipes
Chicken and feta again, this time with sweetcorn for company. It really is three recipes in one: dive in if you’re intrigued.
Feta, grapes and walnuts. No more to say, you just have to try for yourself.
And you can whip feta into a gorgeous dip which is double-gorgeous served with ripe tomatoes.