The cherry blossoms are blooming in Central Park. The magnolias are bursting in front yards all over Astoria. Daffodils are everywhere, and so are the people. Spring has finally sprung in New York, and nothing says spring, especially after an active day outside shaking off the last of winter’s hijinks, like a crunchy, herby salad filled with chicken, tomatoes, feta, and pasta.
It’s the perfect segue: ingredients that are available all year round, ready to be consumed the first day of the year you truly really want to put effort into making a savory meal that tastes like a warm, sunny day. And because it’s a salad, you can throw as much of this, as little of that as you’d like and it will be amazing every single time. That’s sort of the way I learned this one. I was visiting my friend Erin in Boston, probably a good ten years ago, when she suggested we make this for dinner. It hails from a possibly ancient issue of Cooking Light magazine, but we never measured anything. A handful of basil and parsley, a bunch of scallions, a bag of lettuce. And, okay, fine, a little too much penne that one day. I think once it was cooked it barely fit in the pot. I swear, it wasn’t me — but of course it was so very me. She just knows me so well. Needless to say, I have been hooked since that day, and this salad is a staple in my warm weather dinner arsenal.
And the great thing about this baby is it’s a complete meal. Fiber, veggies, and vitamins? Check. Protein? Check. Carbs? Check. I can’t necessarily quantify exactly how filling it is — I tend to go back for seconds and thirds, and I’m not sure if it’s because I’m still hungry or because it’s just that damn good (I tend to think it’s the latter). But because all of the ingredients on their own are so healthy I never feel guilty about it.
The combination of scallions, basil, parsley, and garlic is explosive. The romaine is simple, crunchy, and a must in every bite. The grape tomatoes are sweet and juicy. The feta salty and creamy. The chicken, tender and hearty. And it’s the warmth of the pasta, tossed together with the feta and herbs, that binds it all together. So many flavors that seem so disparate, working in tandem to create a perfectly seamless dish.
And that’s spring, isn’t it? A once quiet landscape suddenly bursting with color. Everything suddenly new, full of life, full of flavor.
Herbed Chicken Pasta Salad
Is dressing necessary? Actually no, it’s not. The herbs and feta are actually probably enough to flavor it, and sometimes my fella leaves it off completely. But I love me some salad dressing. Though I would love to propose a homemade dressing to you here, my favorite for this is Annie’s Natural Tuscany Italian. But like the list of ingredients below, this is merely a suggestion — use your favorite dressing, make your own vinaigrette, enjoy it plain. I’d imagine even lemon juice and olive oil would be spectacular. Whatever you add (even Caesar, as the original creators imagined), it will merely be a highlight to the bright flavors already within the salad. As the warm weather wears on and each of the ingredients comes into season, this becomes a completely locally-sourced meal for me. But truth be told, it’s even great with supermarket produce. It’s even great with rotisserie chicken, if, like me, you’re too lazy to grill or roast your own (or if it’s too hot in the summer to cook more than your pasta). This is a salad’s salad: use this combination of flavors as a guideline, and make it your own.
serves at least 8 — unless you take seconds, thirds, or fouths
2 cooked chicken breasts, chopped or shredded
10 ounces romaine lettuce, chopped
½ pint grape or cherry tomatoes, sliced in half
1 bunch scallions (about 4-6), washed, trimmed, and sliced (white and light green parts only)
¼ cup thinly sliced basil
¼ cup chopped parsley
4 ounces feta (crumbled or chunk)
1 garlic clove, minced
8 ounces penne or other short pasta, cooked and hot
Toss all ingredients together and serve with your favorite dressing. I mean, it’s a salad.