Zany Zuni Bread Salad

There are certain recipes you catalogue permanently in your brain under the heading: “I AM GOING TO MAKE THIS SOMEDAY!” On my list you might find: black and white cookies, leg of lamb, cheese puffs (the fancy ones that Martha Stewart makes). Very high on my list was an ultra-specific dish that caught my fancy years earlier when I first purchased the Zuni Cafe cookbook: Roast Chicken & Bread Salad.

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As you can see by the picture, a few nights ago I succeeded in finally crossing this dish of my list. (Cue Hall and Oats: “This dish, this dish is off my list.”) Was it worth it? Did it disappoint? Are you tired of these questions that force you to click “Continue”?

Welcome to the other side of “Continue!”

Now then: Zuni Cafe’s Roast Chicken and Bread Salad. Here’s the thing. When tackling this recipe, I heeded the advice of a certain food icon named Julia Child. Once on a show I caught of hers she was talking to Jacques Pepin and she said: “Anyone who doesn’t finish a recipe because they’re missing an ingredient or a step isn’t much of a cook at all.”

Her point is: if it’s a choice between not doing or finishing a recipe because you don’t have the right materials or resources vs. not cooking at all, you should just do the recipe, dawg. (Julia Child was fond of the words “dawg” and “homeslice.”) This applies here because the Zuni Cafe wants you to salt your chicken and stuff the skin with herbs 2 days before you start. That’s whack, yo!

No, no, no. I didn’t do that. What I did was I used the Barefoot Contessa’s recipe—oh sweet, sweet Contessa. Unfortunately, I don’t want to write too much about the chicken aspect of this dish because I’m currently working on Chapter 3 of my book: the chicken chapter. Would you want me to hurt sales of my book by sharing all my feelings about chicken here? Of course not! We want my book to be very very successful.

So let’s focus on the bread salad. What is bread salad? Is this a real thing or are these glorified croutons?

To be honest, having made it, I’m not entirely sure. The recipe didn’t seem to make a lot of sense in places. Like, for example, the beginning. You take a loaf of peasant bread (which I purchased at Whole Foods):

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The recipe says: “Cut the bread into a couple of large chunks.”

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Then: “Carve off all of the bottom crust and most of the top and side crust.”

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Leaving us with:

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From this, bread salad? That will feed two to four people? Where did I go wrong?

Into the broiler it goes, after brushing with olive oil:

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You flip it once and let it crisp on both sides. It looks like this, mmm:

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Beautiful color, no?

You tear it up into bits and put into a bowl. You should have 4 cups. Yeah right!

Then you prepare a vinaigrette: 1/4 cup olive oil, 1 1/2 Tbs Champagne vinegar or white wine vinegar, salt and pepper in a small bowl.

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Toss 1/4 cup of the vinagrette with the bread.

Soak 1 Tbs of dried currants with 1 tsp red wine vinegar and 1 Tbs warm water.

“While chicken is roasting, put the pine nuts in a baking dish and warm in the oven for a minute or two.”

Add them to the bowl of bread.

“Place a spoonful of olive oil in a small skillet, add [2 to 3 garlic cloves slivered] and [1/4 cup slivered scallions, including a little of the green part.]”

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“Cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until softened. Don’t let them color. Scrape into the bread and fold to combine. Drain the plumped currants and fold in. Dribble [2 Tbs of chicken stock or lightly salted water] over the salad and fold again. Taste a few pieces of bread–a fairly saturated one and a dryish one. if it is bland, add salt, pepper, and/or a few drops of vinegar, then toss well. Since the basic character of bread salad depends on the bread you use, these adjustments can be essential.

“Pile the bread salad in a 1-quart baking dish and tent with foil; set the salad bowl inside. Place the salad in the oven after you flip the chicken the final time.” (With 10 minutes to spare, basically.)

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This all gets very complicated here. Basically: take the chicken out of the oven when it’s done, lift on to a plate, slit between the thighs and breasts and tilt the bird over the roasting pan to drain the juices.

“Put the pan on medium-low heat, add juice that’s collected under the chicken, and bring to a simmer. Stir and scrape to soften any hard golden drippings. Taste–the juices will be extremely flavorful.”

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“Tip the bread salad into the salad bowl. Drizzle and toss with a spoonful of the pan juices. Add a handful of arugula, a drizzle of vinaigrette and fold well.”

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Phew! That was exhausting to type, let alone do. The verdict?

Ok, I liked this. I liked how the arugula wilts and how all these flavors and textures come together. I wish the bread were consistently crunchy and less mushy. I liked the idea of using pan drippings to flavor the bread (that, to me, is the step that makes the most sense; that unites bread and chicken into a beautiful whole). Somehow, the process didn’t yield quite as wondrous a result, though, as simply making a gravy with some flour and chicken stock. In fact, my fondest roast chicken pan dripping memory is this one. That’s where I served the chicken with Amanda Hesser’s Arborio Rice Salad and I made the Barefoot Contessa’s gravy. It took less time, less ingredients and it was far more rewarding.

The Zuni Cafe Bread Salad is a novelty, the sort of thing that might top any person’s list of recipes to try sometime in their lives. Now that I’ve tried it I can mull it over, consider its merits, and feed a bird colony with all the bread I didn’t use. It’s like that song in Mary Poppins: “Though her words are simple and true, listen…listen…she’s calling to you. Eat the birds, with bread salad now… bread salad… bread salad… bread salad now.”

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