The toothbrush I’ve been using for the last two weeks is wimpy. It’s a fat blue thing, designed for the floppy hands of someone doped up on Vicodin for much longer than I was, with a pittance of soft bristles that do more mopping than actual brushing. It’s the dead fish handshake of the toothbrush world. I hated it.
Today, I graduated to a specially-designed “sensitive brush,” which is about halfway to the real thing. I never knew I could be so excited about a toothbrush. But I am, because it heralds a sure march back to the world of real food.
I was three bites in, last Saturday in Colorado, when I realized I was eating bread for the first time in more than a week. It was store-bought garlic bread, the spineless, squishy kind that you warm up in a metallic bag. As we shoveled it in late that night, mopping up the last of two Stouffer’s lasagnas, it occurred to me that there are times when good, crusty bread is exactly what you don’t want. We were gathered in John’s kitchen after the service, ten people perched on chairs and counters and stairs instead of spread out at the table in the next room. I thought it fitting, how even though Susie wasn’t there with us, we were gathered around the spot where she might have been, eating food that comforted us the way she did. (A kitchen always comforts, I guess.) I couldn’t imagine a better meal.
For me, of course, biting into the bread without risking dental upheaval was a nice thrill. I felt like I’d advanced to a new level of healing. I got cocky.
On the way back to the airport the next day, we hit a café in Glenwood Springs, where we saw a coconut curried chicken salad sandwich on the board. (You know how I feel about chicken salad.) Just saying the word “sandwich” made me feel like a reckless teenager; the idea of shredded coconut in chicken salad delighted me to the point of public squealing. (I’ve never been a big coconut fan before, beyond the milk, but I think it’s safe to say I’m on the front end of an undeniable love affair with the stuff. It must have started with lust for something I couldn’t have. Doesn’t it always.)
I hung back in line at the café to gauge the sandwich’s safety, see if looked soft enough to eat, and when I saw one come out on a wheaty version of Wonder bread, I decided to take the plunge. I’d chewed the garlic bread without doing any damage – how different could it be, eating a doughy sandwich with mushy stuff inside?
Mouth-wise, it was fine; I took tiny bites and rolled everything back to the good molars, away from the still-tender tissue in the front of my mouth. I have graduated to soft sandwiches, too.
The chicken salad was another story. There were big, dry chunks of chicken, slathered with a curried mayonnaise too thin to give the salad any real mouthfeel, along with overwithered cranberries and zilch in the way of coconut. I was happy to be eating regular food, but disappointed that the sammy’s insides didn’t have much in the way of flavor, especially given the amount of mayonnaise involved.
Today, spurred by sandwiches in the news, I made the flavorful, yeilding chicken salad I’d wanted. I slathered chicken breasts with spices and roasted them right on the bone, so they stayed moist, and whirled the meat around in my KitchenAid, so it got good and shreddy without much effort from my hands. I added Madras curry, and thick Greek yogurt, and the bittiest dollop of real mayonnaise, along with basil and scallions and a hefty dose of toasted unsweetened coconut. It stirred up into the sort of fine-textured chicken salad that makes you want to get out the ice cream scoop, an avocado half, and a fat butter lettuce leaf, and pretend it’s 1975.
I know it will be better tomorrow, when the curry has had more of chance to do its business, but waiting didn’t seem to be an option today. I piled it onto my favorite seeded bread (have your sandwiches met Dave yet? He’s our new hero.), along with fat slices of avocado, and ate myself silly.
Going for the seeded bread was a little aggressive (even though I put the toast on a wet cutting board before assembling the sandwich, so it would soften a little), but now that I’ve conquered the sandwich, I have big aspirations for this almost-healed mouth of mine. Tomorrow, I’ll have another scoop of chicken salad, maybe on naan or soft pita.
But soon, I’ll be eating apples and tortilla chips and, big, sharp slabs of chocolate. Just you wait.
Curried Coconut Chicken Salad (PDF)
In my opinion, chicken salad is best when the chicken is shredded, as opposed to cubed, because it allows the flavorings – in this case freshly chopped basil, scallions, curry, and a delicious dose of toasted coconut – to wedge themselves into little crevices, in each and every bite. I “shred” my chicken in a stand mixer because it’s easier for me, but you could certainly use your hands or a fork. Adding chopped apples and walnuts or cashews would make this is a more traditional curried chicken salad.
Before you begin adding curry powder, taste it first, and judge how much you need based on its strength.
TIME: 40 minutes active time
MAKES: enough for 4 or 5 sandwiches
2 large chicken breasts on the bone (about 2 pounds total)
2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil
2 1/2 teaspoons Madras curry powder
1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt, plus more to taste
Freshly ground pepper
1 (7 ounce) container 2% Greek yogurt
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
1/4 cup chopped fresh scallions
1/4 cup (packed) chopped fresh basil
1/2 cup toasted unsweetened coconut
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Place the chicken in a large pan fitted with a roasting rack. Stir the olive oil and one teaspoon of the curry powder together in a small bowl with the salt and a good grinding of pepper, and rub the mixture all over the chicken, in a thin layer. Roast for 40 to 45 minutes, or until the chicken reaches 165 degrees at the thickest part on an instant-read thermometer. Set aside to cool.
When cool, pull the chicken off the bone and cut it into 1” pieces. (You should have a generous three cups.) In the work bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, shred the chicken using on-off motions until you reach the desired consistency. Add the remaining 1 1/2 teaspoons curry powder, plus the yogurt, mayonnaise, scallions, basil, and coconut. Stir to blend, and season to taste with salt and pepper.