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A Chicken Salad in Every Potluck

August 19, 1993|LESLIE LAND

When I was growing up, "taking potluck" had a clear meaning. You got invited to eat at a friend's place with the understanding that nothing special had been prepared. You would take your chance and eat what the family was eating.

No more. During the past few decades, potluck has become the front half of "potluck supper," also known as bring-a-dish, and it means exactly that: Come hungry, but come with some food. It's not as bad as getting a chain letter, but it can evoke distinctly similar feelings. Try to repress them; potlucks have become an accepted way to entertain, and they can actually be fun if you don't let yourself get fussed.

After all, you don't have to cook anything. You can just buy your contribution--at the local deli or gourmet takeout, as the case may be. Though macaroni salad may come to the irritated mind, something like a smoked chicken or a pile of Chinese barbecued ribs is probably a better idea.

It doesn't hurt to inquire whether anybody is doing the cheese platter. If not, cover a plastic platter or other not-precious large flat surface with big lettuce, cabbage or squash leaves. Top it with at least three cheeses: one chunk of something sharp, such as Cheddar; one chunk of something mild, such as havarti, and one chunk of something gooey, such as Brie. Depending on the adventurousness of your crowd, the stock of your cheese store and the state of your budget, you can really have a good time with this.

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In any event, avoid the supermarket look by garnishing with lots of fresh crisp watercress and two or three really hunky bunches of good-looking grapes. Matzo is not usually part of the cheese platter, but it tastes very much like water crackers, costs a great deal less and looks stylish in the basket you have brought along to hold the bread.

While we're discussing the obvious but often overlooked, don't forget prosciutto and melon. Or a huge bowl of crisp green salad with a light vinaigrette dressing. This simple item is comparatively rare at potluck suppers, but it's an ideal counterpoint to the usual abundance of pasta, grain and beans.

The beauty of salads like this is their refreshing quality, so focus on leaves--lettuces, spinach, arugula, cress, endive--and juicy, crunchy vegetables in small pieces so they don't overwhelm the foliage. Tomatoes make salad watery; it's better to serve them on the side.

Bring the greens all washed, dried and ready to go in a big, heavyweight plastic food bag (test the bag with water before adding the greens so you'll know it's leakproof). Add dressing and toss right in the bag before dumping into what with any luck will be your host's big bowl.

There's fruit too. Not made into salad but just carefully chosen and arranged so people can get at it. Best bets right now are plums, grapes, late strawberries, pineapple and melon in bite-size chucks with wood picks close at hand.

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These labor-saving contributions are all perfectly honorable, but you can't count on them forever. Sooner or later you're bound to find yourself trying to think of something to actually cook, something that's portable, tasty, pretty, easy and not too horrendously expensive.

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In spite of its comparatively low cost, this is a luxurious dish. And though it's not exactly diet material, it is lighter than most salads of this sort because it's moistened with chicken broth instead of mayonnaise or oil.

CHICKEN, POTATO AND ALMOND SALAD WITH BASIL

5 pounds mixed chicken parts (breasts, legs and thighs)

Olive oil

1/2 cup medium-dry Sherry

1 tablespoon salt

2 1/2 pounds boiling potatoes, cut into large cubes

1/4 cup dry white wine

1 medium red onion, finely diced

2 large cloves garlic, finely minced

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar, or more to taste

1 1/2 cups fresh basil leaves, lightly packed

1 cup toasted almonds, unsalted

Arrange chicken pieces in lightly oiled large shallow baking pan, skin-side-up. Pour in Sherry and cover with foil. Bake at 350 degrees 50 to 60 minutes, or until thoroughly cooked.

Remove chicken and set aside to cool. Pour cooking juices into gravy separator or tall, narrow bowl to remove fat. Discard fat and reserve broth.

Bring large kettle of water to boil. Add 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, then potatoes. Lower heat to medium and cook at vigorous simmer until potatoes are just tender, about 15 minutes.

Drain potatoes and transfer to large, non-reactive bowl. Add wine, stir gently until well distributed, then stir in 1/2 cup reserved broth. Let potatoes cool.

While potatoes cool, skin and bone chicken and cut into large chunks, about 1 1/2 inches. Add chicken to cooled potatoes along with onion, garlic, balsamic vinegar and remaining 1 1/2 teaspoons salt. Stir in additional chicken broth, if salad seems dry. Cover tightly and refrigerate at least 2 hours, or overnight.

Shortly before serving, slice basil into wide ribbons and stir in. Taste salad and adjust seasonings, adding more vinegar and/or salt if flavor seems flat. Transfer to wide, shallow platter or serving bowl. Sprinkle with almonds and serve at once. Makes 10 to 12 servings.

Each serving contains about:

359 calories; 959 mg sodium; 97 mg cholesterol; 11 grams fat; 23 grams carbohydrates; 35 grams protein; 0.95 gram fiber.

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