July 3, 2013

Recipe: Almond "Chicken" Salad with Pickled Grape Relish

Happy Fourth of July Eve! I hope your holiday is filled with friends, family, fireworks, and summery feasts. When I was growing up, my family's July 4th traditions included a fried chicken dinner and a large pan of brownies or magic cookie bars. We gathered with my mom's side of the family each summer, three generations sprawled out on a patchwork of old blankets atop a grassy Michigan field, eating and chatting and playing cards as we awaited the fireworks. Once we "grandkids" were older, the family started attending the Detroit Symphony Orchestra's outdoor concert at Greenfield Village, which quickly became a highlight of my childhood. You've not experienced fireworks until they are accompanied by Tchaikovsky's epic 1812 Overture and honest-to-goodness, soul-shaking cannon fire.

In case it's not yet clear, I love me some Fourth of July. I don't love over-heating in this crazy weather we're having. Holiday meal solution? A cooling, almond-based, vegan "chicken" salad with pickled grapes. It's a fun play on classic American chicken salad - chicken, mayo, grapes, tarragon - a recipe that turned 150 years old this year (Happy B-day, chicken salad!). Blanched almonds are simmered in water until slightly tender and plump, giving them a toothsome chew. The rich almonds, crunchy celery, and zippy dressing make a great salad on their own. But the pickled grape relish? That's the secret ingredient.

Here's the deal with pickled grape relish: red grapes are quartered and soaked in a brine of wine vinegar, cinnamon, mustard seeds, and black peppercorns for 12 hours, then drained. The relish is nothing short of magical, combining the sweet, juicy burst of fresh grapes with the pleasant pucker of a pickle, perfectly rounded out by the warming spice of the brine. Adding the pickled grapes to the salad creates a light, refreshing dish with huge flavor - perfect for a hot summer day. Happy Fourth!

Almond "Chicken" Salad
makes 2 cups

1 cup raw almonds
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 cup pickled grape relish*, recipe below
3 stalks celery, diced
1 medium shallot, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 cup vegan mayonnaise
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon dried dill
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/8 teaspoon black pepper

*The pickled grape relish needs 12 hours of pickling before it's ready for eating. If you're pressed for time (or not interested in pickling grapes), you can definitely sub in 1/2 cup quartered red grapes. The salad will still be very tasty, just a little simpler in flavor.

In a small saucepan, combine the almonds, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and enough water to cover (about 1 cup should do) and bring to a simmer over medium-low heat. Simmer for 15 minutes, or until the almonds have absorbed most of the water - the almonds should be a bit plump, with a tender texture that has lost the "crunch" of raw almonds. Drain the almonds and set aside.

While the almonds are simmering, you'll have time to put together the dressing (and chop the veggies, if you haven't already). In a medium bowl, whisk together the vegan mayonnaise, lemon juice, dijon mustard, dill, pepper, and remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt.

Once the almonds have drained, add them to the bowl with the dressing along with the celery, shallot, garlic, and pickled grape relish. Toss everything in the dressing until well-combined. The salad will keep for 5 days in the refrigerator, and can be served in a sandwich, atop a bed of greens, or in a vegetable "bowl" of your choosing (lettuce/radicchio leaves or hollowed-out tomato halves are my favorites, though an avocado half is a decadent and delightful option).

Pickled Grape Relish
adapted from Molly Wizenberg's recipe, which was adapted from Susan Kaplan
makes 3 cups

1 pound red seedless grapes, removed from stems and rinsed
1 cup white wine vinegar
1/2 cup water
1 tablespoon sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons mustard seeds (yellow or brown)
1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
1 cinnamon stick (about 2 1/2 inches long)
1/4 teaspoon salt

Place a small saucepan over medium high heat and add the vinegar, water, sugar, spices, and salt. Cover and bring to a boil, then immediately remove the pickling liquid from heat and allow temperature to come down to room temperature.

While the pickling liquid is doing its thing, grab a cutting board and a sharp paring knife and prepare to quarter the grapes. This task could be seen as tedious, but I find it rather zen-like. Quartering the grapes took me about 10 minutes, and my knife skills are nothing special. You'll find it immensely helpful to have a crazy-sharp knife, because thin grape skin, much like tomato skin, can cause trouble when you go at it with a dull knife.

Quarter the grapes lengthwise and place in a glass container with a tight-fitting lid, such as a large Mason jar or a Pyrex storage container (I used a 4-cup round Pyrex with plastic lid, and it was the perfect size). Once the pickling liquid has cooled, pour through a mesh strainer (to capture the whole spices) into the container of grapes. If you'd like the spiced flavors to be more prominent, place the spices into a cheesecloth bundle and nestle the bundle into the pickling container (I did). Cover with lid and refrigerate for 12 hours.

After 12 hours, drain the relish of all the pickling liquid - you can reserve the liquid for another use if you'd like, or toss it if you've no further need of its pickling services. Store the relish in the storage container you pickled it in - it will keep for about a week in the fridge.


  1. Wow. The pickled grapes really intrigue me. This is something I would like to try soon. Thanks for posting.

    1. Thanks, Jody! I felt the same way when I happened upon the concept - I went out and bought grapes the same day! :)