In today’s topsy-turvy world, I have begun to crave my favorite comfort foods. A couple of weeks ago, the craving was for chicken salad. And when I say crave, I obviously mean, “talk my husband’s ear off about how much I want chicken salad for days and days until he grumbles ‘SO MAKE IT’ in an exasperated tone.” Into the kitchen to figure out how to veganize chicken salad, I went! After a few attempts, I bring you my very traditional, New York deli style, no frills, vegan chicken salad. With tofu. Not chicken.
Chicken salad is one of those foods that I would not touch with a ten foot pole (or six foot pole, in today’s day in age. Too soon?) as a child, but grew to thoroughly enjoy as a comfort food in my adult, pre-vegan days. I do not know what on earth brought on the craving (maybe it was the episode of Ina Garten that came into my headphones while I was pseudo-napping several weeks ago…), but the moment the idea came into my head to create a plant-based version, I could not stop!
There was only one problem, however. Turns out, I had never actually made chicken salad. Only eaten it. Whoops. It was time to research.
Where does an Italian girl begin her research into any food venture? With a phone call to her mother. Duh.
Vegan Chicken Salad: The Requirements (According To Mom)
As it turns out, my mother has very specific and strong opinions regarding chicken salad. I didn’t know this going into my chicken-salad recreation venture, but BOY did I learn a thing or two in that first phone call. I googled some traditional chicken salad recipes and read out the ingredients to her. So many of the ingredients were the same across recipes: mayo, celery, salt and pepper, but it was when I got to the more divergent ingredients like slivered almonds and grapes that I really got an earful.
“No. No. No! I’m telling you, those people are WRONG. You do not mess with a good chicken salad. Grapes? Nuts? A classic deli chicken salad won’t have any of that crap.”
“None of it, Mom? I feel like I’ve had grapes in chicken salad before…”
“Maybe it will have dill, but only if you’re in a fancy, artisanal deli. Unless you’re planning on serving it with some frou-frou salad for the Ladies Who Lunch that want to feel special, LEAVE IT OUT.”
At this point, she had me giggling. Over chicken salad. Moms are the best.
“LOTS OF MAYO. Salt. Pepper. Some celery for crunch. Done. If you feel like need to kick it up just a bit? Lemon juice.”
Okay, Mom. You got it! Because after that very tense lesson, there was no way I could do it any other way.
So here we go. A simple, classic vegan chicken salad. With just a hint of dill (SORRY MOM I GUESS WE ARE IN A FANCY ARTISANAL DELI NOW I LOVE YOU SO MUCH.)
Preparing Tofu For “Chicken” Salad
To prepare this vegan chicken salad, we have start with the tofu. I have a tried-and-true technique for ensuring that the tofu is not only crispy on the outside, but has the perfect meaty texture on the inside.
Are you ready? Bake your tofu after it has been frozen AND thawed. This is full on magic, I swear. Freezing and thawing tofu does insanely good things to tofu’s texture. We can thank tofu’s high water content for this. The water inside tofu expands when frozen, leaving behind larger holes and air pockets when thawed. Freeze, thaw, press out the extra liquid and voila! A spongy, chewier tofu that not only absorbs more flavor, but gives is the exact right texture we need for this salad.
I keep blocks of tofu in the freezer regularly. I do not do anything special to them before I freeze them, either. I just pop them in there in the packaging from the grocery store- it’s okay to freeze them with the water they come in. Then transfer the amount of tofu you need to the fridge either the night before or the morning that you intend to use it.
Once the tofu is ready to go, it will look like this. Do you see how this tofu has these flaky layers? Thank the freezing and thawing for that.
I tear up my tofu for this recipe instead of cubing it. In part because I am a wee bit lazy, and in part because I think it looks more like traditional chicken salad this way. To this tofu, add:
- Soy sauce
- Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- Garlic Powder
- Onion Powder
- White Pepper
- Smoked Paprika
Mix thoroughly and bake on a parchment lined baking sheet for 25-30 minutes, making sure you give the tofu a good stir halfway through baking. Once cooled, you’re ready to make salad.
Putting The Salad Together
This is the easy (and most delicious) part. Transfer your cooled, crispy tofu to a bowl and mix in the rest of the ingredients:
- Chopped celery
- Vegan mayonnaise
- Dijon mustard
- Lemon juice
- Dill (sorry again, Mom!)
Serve as a side, or on your favorite soft sandwich roll. I always go for the soft sandwich roll route because I am constantly looking for an excuse to incorporate more bread into my life. The bread in the image at the top of this post is a recipe that I am currently working on. Coming soon!
Vegan Chicken Salad
- Baking sheet
- large mixing bowl
To Prepare The Crispy Tofu
- 1 block extra-firm tofu frozen, thawed, & pressed to remove liquid
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon olive oil extra virgin
- 1 ½ tablespoons cornstarch
- ¼ teaspoon garlic powder
- ¼ teaspoons onion powder
- salt and pepper to taste
To Prepare The Vegan Chicken Salad
- 2 stalks celery (approximately 1/2 cup) chopped small
- ⅓ cup vegan mayonnaise
- 2 teaspoons dijon mustard
- ½ tablespoon lemon juice
- ¼ teaspoon dried dill
- salt and pepper to taste
Making The Crispy Tofu
- Once your tofu has thawed, press it to remove additional liquid. You can do this using a tofu press, or you can wrap your tofu in a dishtowel and place a heavy pan or canned goods on top of it.
- Preheat your oven to 400°
- Tear up tofu into chunks and place into a mixing bowl.
- Add soy sauce and olive oil to the tofu and stir until evenly distributed.
- Mix in the cornstarch, garlic powder, onion powder, salt, and pepper.
- Transfer the coated tofu to a parchment lined baking sheet and bake for 25-30 minutes, gently stirring the tofu halfway through baking.
- Set aside the tofu to cool. It does not need to cool completely, but allow it to cool slightly before mixing in the rest of the salad ingredients.
Assembling The Vegan Chicken Salad
- Transfer the tofu back into a mixing bowl and add all of the remaining ingredients to the bowl. Stir until thoroughly combined..
- Taste and adjust seasonings as needed. Serve as a side or on your favorite soft sandwich rolls.