Food: Chicken feed

Simon Hopkinson Leftovers just won't do. To make the perfect chicken salad you need a whole bird. Photograph by Jason Lowe
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It sounds dull, doesn't it, chicken salad? Rarely giving any clue as to its composition, it could consist of a slime of leftover chicken shreds and salad cream; an anaemic sliced breast with lollo-rosso and little else; or a selection from an "eat as much as you want for pounds 4.95" buffet. Yet a carefully constructed chicken salad is a lovely thing to eat, especially in warm weather - though I happily eat it at any time of the year. It may be made from a leftover roast, but only so long as there are enough good bits to play with. Ultimately, however, it should be made from scratch.

Italian cooks think nothing of roasting a piece of veal to make their favourite summer dish, vitello tonnato (cold veal with tuna sauce). Similarly, Imperial Pekinese cold hors d'oeuvre will always have an array of cold sliced pork of some sort, often pressed and preserved, especially cooked for the occasion. Cold chicken with sesame sauce is another contender.

Within these shores, however, a cold meat and fish assembly most often comes as an afterthought. Now, I am as fond of leftovers as anyone else, it is just that the fresh taste of a premeditated cold meat or fish salad makes you realise how stunningly good something like this can be when due care is generously lavished over its preparation.

Take Coronation chicken, for instance. The original recipe from The Constance Spry Cookery Book (one of my few "bibles") is rarely adhered to these days, which is why it almost always disappoints. Created for the present Queen's Coronation by Constance Spry - at least, I have always believed this to be the case - it remains a quintessentially British dish: cold and curried, wet and creamy, slightly sweet and piquant. The Raj and all that. And a real success to eat.

Cold fish salad, too, is something most people would turn up their noses at. Whereas the warm salad - or the salade tiede to the incurable - gives off that aura of something really quite special and different. Both examples are delicious if done well: equally appalling when done badly.

I find it difficult to wrench myself away from the egg yolk and oil emulsion when it comes to dressing a substantial salad; the simple vinaigrette, whatever the additional flavourings, just doesn't seem to perform as well as mayonnaise. In the following recipes, this is transformed into as thin or thick a coating as suits the salad's composition.

Salad of cold steamed cod with capers and thinned mayonnaise, serves 4

Making the cod taste good as it steams is the trick here. The suggested flavourings are only a guide, so you can fiddle about to your heart's content once you are happy with the basic system. But first of all, one needs a steamer. I use the cheap stacking ones that can be found in Chinatown, here in London (or in the better Asian supermarkets in the bigger provincial cities). These are fashioned from spun aluminium, and usually offer two perforated layers, together with a domed lid and capacious base pan where the water goes. The smallest of these cost not much more than a tenner and, with care, will last for years (they double as a useful straining implement, using one of the layers suspended over the base pan, as you might a colander over a cooking pot).

500g piece of thick cod fillet, skin intact, bones removed

salt and cayenne pepper

1 scant tbsp sherry vinegar

2-3 tbsp fruity olive oil

a few sprigs of dill or, even better, wild fennel

1 small shallot, peeled and finely chopped

3-4 tbsp thick mayonnaise

the most inner hearts of 3 round lettuces, leaves separated, washed and dried

a few sprigs of flat parsley, leaves only, roughly chopped

a squeeze of lemon juice (optional)

1 heaped tbsp capers, drained and lightly squeezed in the hand

a little extra olive oil

Put the cod (skin side up) into a suitable dish that will fit inside your steamer. Season with the salt and cayenne, then spoon over the vinegar and oil. Lay over your chosen herb and sprinkle the shallot around the fish. Have the water in the steamer boiling, cover the dish tightly with foil, put onto one of the perforated layers and attach the lid tightly. Leave to boil at full pelt for five minutes and then switch off the heat. Do not remove the lid for 20 minutes. Once time is up, remove the dish from the steamer and remove the foil. The cod will now be cooked, its juices having mingled nicely with the oil and vinegar.

Remove the herb and discard. Now, holding the cod with the back of a fish slice, strain off all the juices into a bowl. Remove the skin from the fish (it should peel off in one neat piece), cover the dish with a plate and leave to cool completely. Pass the juices through a sieve and whisk together. Add enough of this mixture to the mayonnaise to achieve a loose, coating consistency. Check for seasoning and add a little lemon juice if you think it necessary. Briefly dip the lettuce leaves into some of the juices and dress four plates with them, laid flat. Flake the cod over these, scatter with the parsley and spoon over the sauce in dribs and drabs. Distribute the capers willy-nilly and splash with a little extra olive oil.

Salad of cold roast chicken with watercress and sweet-mustard dressing, serves 6

Watercress with chicken happens to be my favourite sandwich filling. The peppery bite of the leaves, together with a smear of cooling mayonnaise and moist slices of white breast meat (the only use for chicken breast in my book), is a winning combination. Nowadays, of course, watercress leaves have been flung aside in favour of the more bullying rocket. But I don't think rocket lies comfortably in a British sandwich, do you?

Regular readers may be familiar with my dislike of honey. However, here, its cloying flavour seems to evaporate during the roasting process, but does give a wonderful mahogany sheen to the bird's skin and a subtle sweetness to the cooking juices.

1 x 2kg free-range chicken

juice of 2 lemons; pared rind of one

salt and pepper

2 dsp clear honey, warmed

200ml white wine

1 dsp best Dijon mustard

3-4 heaped tbsp thick mayonnaise

2 healthy thick bunches of watercress, trimmed of stalks, washed and dried

2-3 tbsp light olive oil

2 small shallots, very finely chopped

Pre-heat the oven to 400/200C/gas mark 6. Put the chicken into a suitable roasting dish and pour over the lemon juice. Season, and deposit the bits of lemon rind around the bird. Spoon over the honey and add the wine. Roast the bird breast-side uppermost for 30 minutes. Remove, turn the temperature down to 325F/ 170C/gas mark 3 and continue to roast the bird, but this time turned on to one side for 15 minutes and then a further 15 minutes on its other side. Revert the chicken to its initial posture and cook for a further 30 minutes at 275F/140C/gas mark 1, basting occasionally. This attentive, gentle cooking method will ensure a uniformly burnished skin and also much succulence within the bird's flesh; perfect for the cold cut. Lift out the chicken onto a dish and then leave to cool thoroughly. Strain the juices through a fine sieve into a small pan.

Reduce this liquid by one-third, or until well-flavoured, skimming off any scum that may form during the process. Add the mustard to the mayonnaise and loosen with enough of the chicken juices to achieve a thin, "creamed" dressing. Check for seasoning. Simply shine the watercress with enough olive oil using your hands, deftly done in a salad bowl. Arrange on a grand platter or individual plates. Sprinkle with the chopped shallots. Carve the chicken into small pieces however you see fit, and arrange over the leaves. Apply the dressing with affection.

Constance Spry's original Coronation Chicken, serves 6

Once you have made the "curry essence" for this classic salad, I am sure you will agree that it is essential to the success of the dish. You might like to make larger quantities of it, in fact, storing it in a screw-top or Kilner jar in the fridge for when you need it. Useful stuff to have around, and it will keep there for several days, if not a couple of weeks.

I have used it (once blended to taste with mayonnaise) to dress prawns and crab meat before now, mixed with firm chunks of avocado and cucumber. Curiously, it also has a sort of mad affinity with chunks of melon when partnered with the aforementioned prawns - very 1970s, but surprisingly refreshing and truly delicious.

For the curry 'essence'

1 tbsp sunflower oil

50g chopped onion

1 dsp good quality (and freshly purchased) Madras curry powder

1 heaped tsp tomato puree

1 wine-glass red wine (approx 150ml)

3/4 wine-glass water

1 bay leaf

salt, sugar, a touch of pepper

a slice or two of lemon, plus a good squeeze of juice, possibly more

1-2 tbsp apricot puree (sieved apricot jam or mango chutney is also eminently suitable)

400ml mayonnaise

3-4 tbsp lightly whipped double cream

Gently stew the onion in the oil until transparent. Add the curry powder and cook for a few minutes longer. Add the puree, wine, water and bay. Bring to a simmer and add salt, a little sugar, pepper, the lemon slices and juice. Simmer for a further 5-10 minutes. Strain through a fine sieve, pushing down on the solids with a small ladle, and cool. Add by degrees to the mayonnaise with the apricot puree (or jam or chutney) to taste, followed by the whipped cream.

Use the roast chicken from the previous recipe, carved and cut into thick slivers (skin removed). Dress generously with the sauce. Traditionally served with an imaginatively composed rice salad. Or what you will