Two weeks ago was our first Memorial Day weekend with a grill and the first stretch of truly beautiful days. Naturally, we grilled and grilled and grilled: steaks, sausages, veggies, and hot dogs. We ate potato salad, ice cream cake, chips, and washed it all down with cold white wine and beer. It was a delicious few days, but it was also a very salty, greasy, bloated few days. By Tuesday we were craving something much lighter. For inspiration, I turned to Ottolenghi, the master of satisfying salads. I flipped through Jerusalem and found what looked like a seriously virtuous recipe that would surely make us feel good about what we were eating: the saffron chicken and herb salad.
The salad includes thinly sliced fennel bulbs, cilantro, basil, jalapeño, mint, garlic, chicken, and a dressing made from an orange sauce. It seemed healthful and a little odd and like just the right thing. I warned Ed that dinner would be austere: a veggie-heavy salad with chicken. No cheese or nuts or fried pita pieces to make us forget we were eating salad. He was fine with it—he was ready to go lean.The most interesting part of the salad is the orange sauce/dressing. Pieces of unpeeled orange cook down for an hour with honey, vinegar, saffron, and water. When the oranges are soft and the liquid is reduced to three tablespoons of thick, herbaceous syrup, it all gets pulverized in a food processor until it’s a runny paste. Half of the orange mixture is tossed with the chicken and then the other ingredients are folded in. It plates up as a beautiful mess, as all of the best salads do. It was not only easy on the eyes, but surprisingly tasty. Two things elevated it from “eat it because it’s healthy” to “eat it because it’s delicious”: the jalapeño and the garlic. Spicy salad is not something I’ve had often, but it’s something I always want more of. I was concerned that the raw garlic would be too strong—and it is very strong—but it made the dish pleasantly savory and cut through the sweet orange sauce. The salad has a lot of Asian flavors (chile, cilantro, garlic, basil), a variety of textures, and a brightness that made us forget all about brats and burgers…for at least a few days.
I’ve made this both with and without saffron. It definitely adds an herbal note to the orange sauce, but we liked the dish just as much without it.
Cooked chicken (from a store-bought rotisserie chicken, for example) can be swapped for the grilled chicken.
The original recipe called for 15 mint leaves, but I swapped 1/3 cup parsley.
You can swap spicy honey for the plain honey– it’s a great addition to the orange sauce–though I wouldn’t substitute more than 1 tablespoon (or less!) unless you can handle a lot of heat.
1 orange, washed well
2½ tablespoons honey
½ teaspoon saffron threads (optional)
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1½ cups water (or more)
2 lbs skinless, boneless chicken breasts
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 small fennel bulbs, very thinly sliced
1 cup picked cilantro leaves
2/3 cup picked basil leaves, torn
1/3 cup picked parsley leaves
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 jalapeño (or other chile), very thinly sliced
1 garlic clove, crushed into a paste
salt and pepper
Preheat the oven to 400°F.
Make the orange sauce: trim and discard the top and bottom of the orange (about 1 cm off each end) and cut it into 12 segments, leaving skin on. Discard seeds.
In a small sauce pan, stir together the orange segments, honey, vinegar, saffron (if using), and enough water to just cover the orange pieces. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Simmer gently for 1 hour or until the orange pieces are soft and there are about 3 tablespoons of syrup left in the pan (add water during cooking if the liquid gets very low). Add softened orange pieces and syrup to a food processor and blitz until the mixture is a smooth, runny paste. Add small amounts of water to the mixture as necessary.
Meanwhile, make the chicken: coat the chicken breasts with 2 tablespoons of olive oil and plenty of salt and pepper. Heat a grill pan or skillet over high heat. When the pan is very hot, add chicken breasts and allow to cook undisturbed for 2 minutes or until char marks appear. Flip the breasts and cook for another 2 minutes. Remove chicken from grill pan and transfer to a sheet pan. Roast chicken for 15 to 20 minutes or until cooked through.
When chicken is cool enough to handle, slice or shred it into large pieces. Place the meat in a large mixing bowl and add half of the orange sauce (cover the rest and refrigerate for a couple of days for another use, like as a salsa for salmon). Mix the orange sauce and chicken well. Add the remaining ingredients to the salad, including the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil, and toss gently. Taste for salt, pepper, and more olive oil and lemon, if needed.