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Hot Chicken Salad is a wonderful comfort food

J. H. Osborne • Mar 22, 2020 at 6:00 PM

A few weeks ago, I ended a column with mention of making “Jo Ann’s Famous Hot Chicken Salad” to carry in as comfort food to a grieving friend. More than a few of you asked me what, exactly, that meant I prepared. Is it spicy chicken salad? Is it served hot or cold? It’s a casserole, you say?!

With us all needing to stay home as much as possible, and certainly in need of some comfort, I reckon today is a good one to answer those questions, best I can, and share the recipe (along with variations).

I thought everyone had heard of Hot Chicken Salad, in one form or another. It is not an uncommon dish and many different recipes can be found, especially in church cookbooks across the South. It isn’t something, however, that I was raised on. At our family gatherings and church dinners on the ground, chicken casserole prevailed, also in many variations. But mostly the type based on stuffing, shredded or chunked chicken, and Campbell’s Cream of Chicken Soup.

I don’t want to start a fight, but to my tastes, my cousin Kathy Wallen Walton and her daughter Missy make the very best — or I should say my favorite — version of that take on Chicken Casserole.

My and Kathy’s cousins, sisters Joyce Wallen Ryans and Mae Wallen Willis, have their own secret recipe for chicken casserole that’s a refreshing change from the stuffing-based versions. It’s a little akin to Hot Chicken Salad, but with numerous ingredients added, or swapped out for others. When Mom and I stopped to visit Mae and her family in Columbia, S.C., on the way home from Charleston last month, this dish was the centerpiece of a huge meal Mae served us at a late lunch (late because we were, well, two hours late arriving at her and husband Wayne’s posh home at the end of a cul-de-sac in an upscale neighborhood). I loved it and ate way too much. It has taken the lead as my personal favorite Hot Chicken Salad type dish, even though they don’t call it that (and no offense, Jo Ann).

Speaking of Jo Ann, here’s her Hot Chicken Salad recipe, per her daughter Vicki Cooper Trammell:

4 cups cooked diced chicken (see note below)

½ cup finely chopped celery (I double this)

1 tablespoon grated onion (I double this)

1 cup Duke’s mayonnaise

1 can condensed cream of chicken soup

1 tablespoon lemon juice (see note below)

½ teaspoon black pepper (I use white pepper instead)

½ cup slivered almonds

1 cup of shredded cheddar cheese (I use extra sharp)

1 (8 ounce) can water chestnuts (I chop them rough)

Salt to taste (I used 1 teaspoon in the one I made for Vicki and I thought it was too much. She did not.)

1 ½ cups coarsely crushed potato chips (I just mash them in the bag.)

NOTE: Vicki and I both “cheat” a bit by simply buying a large rotisserie chicken from the deli section at the grocery store. If they only have small birds, you’ll need two. I buy the large ones at Walmart. You should note the flavor you choose (traditional, lemon pepper, etc.) will impart additional flavors into your dish (it’s probably why I thought the batch I made for Vicki tasted too salty). I also “cheat” by keeping pre-squeezed lemon juice on hand — Italia Garden’s Italian lemon juice, available in the produce section of local grocery stores.

Directions:

Cook and dice chicken (or pull from bone and chop if you use our rotisserie shortcut).

Beat Duke’s and soup together until well blended. Add lemon juice, pepper, and salt and blend. Add almonds, water chestnuts, and cheese, and blend. Stir in chicken and pour into a greased 11x13 baking dish. Sprinkle crushed chips on top. Bake at 350 for 30 minutes. Serve warm.

It says serve warm. But I preferred Jo Ann’s version cold and spread on saltine crackers. By the way, Vicki will be the first to tell you this recipe is not unique … it’s just the one she grew to love since childhood.

My own variation is to eliminate the almond slivers. I might add chopped pecans in their place. I also prefer crushed ritz crackers for a topping, and sometimes drizzle the cracker topping with a melted stick of unsalted butter (especially if serving warm with yeast rolls or toast points).

Other common variations I’ve seen in cookbooks: no mayo; no cheese; lime juice instead of lemon; chicken varies from 2 cups to 4 cups; chopped celery varies from ½ cup to 2 cups; sour cream added; cream cheese added; grape-halves added. In other words, play with the basic recipe to suit your own fancy.

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