Just as the most blistering heat of the summer begins to set in, refreshing melons and cucumbers have begun to show up at my Farmers' market. It is only recently that I have come to appreciate melons and cucumbers. I am certain that my earlier dislike was from having eaten a less than spectacular specimen or two while I was growing up. They just seemed a bit boring and flavorless to me. As a child I don't ever remember going to a farmers' market and we never had a vegetable garden (only flowers). The fruits and vegetables I ate were from the grocery store and had, I know now, been picked before their prime for shipment. Some fruits and vegetables suffer more under this kind of treatment than others. Tomatoes are a good example. I went for years as a young adult thinking I didn't like tomatoes anymore. Then on a business trip to Florida, I was served a gorgeous vine ripe tomato on my salad and couldn't believe the flavor explosion in my mouth...I did like tomatoes!
Something similar happened to me with Cantaloupe. After years of refusing cantaloupe, I found myself at the end of a wonderful meal at Alain Ducasse's La Bastide de Moustiers in the South of France. The dessert that evening included a simple medley of seasonal fruits. In it floated these peachy colored cubes that tasted like nothing I had ever eaten—sweet, juicy and with an incredible perfume. The waitress seemed surprised that I didn't know what it was—just melon du Cavaillon (a small French variety of cantaloupe). Amazing!
A couple of summers ago while I was working on a class featuring cold foods, I came across three salads by three of my favorite women chefs—Jody Adams, Judy Rodgers and Joyce Goldstein. All three salads featured combinations of these (and other) crunchy and juicy vegetables and fruits of summer accented by the crunch of nuts, salty cheese and a healthy dose of refreshing mint. I was inspired to put together my own version and the result is the recipe I'm sharing today. I drew most heavily on the salad by Joyce Goldstein, published in an old summer issue of Food & Wine.
Besides getting the chance to use and learn more about a couple of ingredients that weren't regulars in my repertoire, while playing with this recipe I learned a new technique for adding mint flavor to a vinaigrette. Jody Adams says that it is an Italian technique. Basically the vinegar or lemon juice is combined with some minced fresh mint and then brought to a simmer. It is then pulled off of the heat and allowed to steep (much like tea) for at least 30 minutes. The longer you allow it to steep, the more intense the mint flavor. The mint-infused vinegar is then strained and used in the vinaigrette. If you are in a hurry, you could probably skip this step, but if you have time, it is definitely worth trying.
It goes without saying that you should wait to make this salad until the cantaloupes at the market are so fragrant and ripe that you can't pass the stand without being drawn in by their aroma. The cucumbers should be small and firm so they will be at their crunchy best. I purchased the small pickling type—but any variety is fine as long as it isn't overgrown and soft.
I could go on and on about the contrasts of flavors and textures in this salad—salty and sweet, crunchy and soft—and how this makes for an extraordinary salad, but the thing that I love more than anything else about it is that it is downright juicy. Thirst quenching, refreshing and perfect for a hot day, it also makes a satisfying meal because of the addition of the roast chicken.
For the salad you will need a scant pound of shredded roast chicken. Depending on how your supermarket or butcher trims the chicken they sell, you will need 1 1/2 to 2 lbs. of bone-in split breasts to end up with that amount cooked. It is always better to err on the side of too much rather than too little, because shredded roast chicken can be used up in any number of ways—burrito or soft taco filling, in pasta, on a sandwich, etc. Regular readers of my blog have probably figured out that I frown on prepared foods, but I will concede that one of the "better" prepared foods is the widely available rotisserie chicken. If you must, you could make this salad with meat from a purchased rotisserie chicken. But it's so much better if you roast your own chicken. You will need to do this early in the day, or the day before, so the chicken has time to chill.
To roast bone-in, skin-on, chicken breasts, rinse them and pat them dry. Rub the chicken with a light coating of olive oil and season generously with salt and pepper. Place the chicken in a baking dish and roast in a 450° to 475° oven until the skin is crisp and golden and an instant read thermometer inserted in the thickest portion reads 155°--about 25 to 30 minutes. (The chicken will easily reach the safe temperature of 160° as it rests.) As the chicken roasts, regulate the oven temperature to maintain an active sizzle. Remove the chicken from the oven and let sit until cool enough to handle. (If desired, deglaze the baking pan with water. Degrease and reserve the resulting tasty jus for another use.) When the chicken has cooled, remove the skin and bones and discard. Shred the meat into long strips about ½-inch wide.
Chicken Salad with Cantaloupe, Feta & Arugula
2 T. Lemon Juice
½ c. mint chiffonade, plus 1 T. (heaping) chopped mint
1 T. red wine vinegar
1 ½ T. minced shallot (about half a small shallot)
½ t. honey
Salt & Pepper
1/3 c. Olive oil
½ of a large (2 ½ to 3 lb.) ripe cantaloupe, peeled and seeded
1 small cucumber (about 6 oz.), peeled if the skin is tough, halved & seeded
12 to 16 oz. chilled, shredded roast chicken (about 2 1/2 to 3 cups)
4 oz. rinsed and stemmed Arugula (4 handfuls)
½ c. pecans (2 oz.), toasted and broken into medium-sized pieces
4 oz. Feta, crumbled (or substitute Ricotta Salata, thinly sliced)
To make the vinaigrette: Place the lemon juice in a small saucepan with the tablespoon of minced mint and bring to a simmer. Simmer until the mint wilts—this will only take a few seconds. Remove from the heat and let steep for 30 minutes. Strain the lemon juice into a small bowl and add the red wine vinegar, shallot and honey. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Let the shallot macerate for a few moments before adding the olive oil. Whisk in the olive oil. Taste and correct the seasoning. Set aside.
Cut the cantaloupe half in quarters lengthwise. Then slice thinly crosswise (you should have a generous 2 cups of sliced cantaloupe); set aside. Thinly slice the cucumber halves on a long diagonal (you should have about a cup of cucumber “ribbons”).
Place the chicken in a large bowl. Season with salt and pepper and drizzle with some of the vinaigrette. Toss to coat. Add the Arugula and the chiffonade mint to the bowl along with the cantaloupe, cucumber, pecans and Feta.
Season with salt and pepper and drizzle with just enough vinaigrette to coat. Carefully toss the salad. Divide among four dinner plates and serve. Serves 4.