Chicken Salad on Smashed Avocado Toast

I do a lot of complicated, multi-step recipes here. There are reasons for this, of course. One is that I want to keep things interesting. I mean, there are millions – possibly billions – of “easy” recipes out there, boasting 5 ingredients or less, 10 minutes or less, all pantry or store-bought items, one-pot, you name it. But I figure, how many 5-ingredient-chicken-and-veggie-casseroles does the internet need? If I’m going to cook for you, I want it to be fresh and intriguing. Sometimes that means embracing complexity.

Food Blog June 2014-3758The other, more important reason, is that I want to challenge myself. It’s all very well to master a dish, and I like that. But after a while, I get bored. I need something new, to keep my taste buds and my fingers and my mind nimble. I chose to become a professor, which means I work to teach. But I couldn’t have embarked on this career without being a bit of an eternal student, which means I want to learn. That’s why I do these annual projects here – exploring dough, whisking away at a sauce a month. To keep myself enthralled and improving, I have to tackle new challenges.

Food Blog June 2014-3731These challenges find their way to you, most of the time, after some finagling and practicing. Usually I get an idea, fiddle with it, add and subtract and mess and annotate, and out comes a recipe that I post here. It’s not often that I throw together some depth-of-the-fridge ingredients and produce something I consider blogworthy.

Food Blog June 2014-3734But “not often” isn’t the same as never. A few weeks ago, as a heat wave rendered Los Angeles practically immobile (or maybe that was just my un-air-conditioned living room), I dragged myself to the kitchen to (I hoped) find something reasonably delicious to throw together for dinner that didn’t involve the oven or the stove. Great expectations, no?

Food Blog June 2014-3741What we ended up with was a dinner that made our eyebrows climb, and almost immediately we were thinking about when we would have it again. And as sometimes happens, it was just what I had, layered together into something great. Chicken salad. Toast. Avocado smashed with extravagant quantities of lemon juice and raw garlic. Layered and mounded into an open-faced sandwich as at home on a picnic blanket as on your dining room table. So bright and fresh! Satisfying but so light and summery! And, if you have had the presence of mind to make your chicken salad the day before (or, if you’ve got a deli you love, bought some), assembly requires all of five minutes with minimal application of heat. Oh, and if you find yourself in need of a way to use up some homemade mayonnaise, this is your salad.

Food Blog June 2014-3743This is a summer dinner you need to make. And then make again. Because really, complexity is fun, but sometimes simple is just right.

Food Blog June 2014-3750A few extra thoughts: the lemon and garlic smashed avocado is currently my food crush. It’s great with the chicken salad, but it would also be spectacular (and really quite aesthetically lovely too) underneath thin slices of hard boiled egg or smoked salmon. Or, you know, just plain on toast. Or to dip chips into. Or a spoon.

Food Blog June 2014-3747I’m also thinking you could quarter your toast slices, or even cut them into long, skinny toast soldiers, before loading them up, to make sweet tea sandwiches or easy hors d’oeuvres for a bridal or baby shower.

Food Blog June 2014-3753Finally, and this is not about chicken salad or avocado, if you have an iPhone, you should ask Siri “What does the Fox say?” Then you should ask her again. It could well be that I’m the last person on the planet to know about this, but still. You’re welcome.

Food Blog June 2014-3763

Chicken Salad and Smashed Avocado toasts
Serves 4
Much about this recipe is to your liking. More or less mayonnaise, more or less salt, a few extra grinds of pepper, a squeeze or two less lemon juice – use your taste buds and find out what you like best. These are suggested quantities that we found we liked enough to want to tell you about it almost immediately.
For the chicken salad:
4 boneless skinless chicken breasts, patted dry
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
⅓ cup finely sliced green onions (from 3-4 green onions)
⅓ cup celery, stalks halved or quartered lengthwise, then finely sliced (from 1-2 stalks)
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh dill
2 teaspoons lemon zest
2 teaspoons Dijon or whole grain mustard
2 tablespoons roughly chopped capers
¼ cup mayonnaise, or to taste (for us, 6 tablespoons, or ¼ cup plus 2 tablespoon, ended up being perfect)


  • Preheat the oven to 350F.
  • Use 1 tablespoon of the olive oil to grease a 9×9 inch square baking dish.
  • Sprinkle the chicken breasts with the salt and pepper on both sides, then nestle them into the pan in a single layer. Drizzle the remaining tablespoon of olive oil over the chicken.
  • Bake for 45-60 minutes or until juices run clear and flesh reaches an internal temperature of 165F. You know, fully cooked chicken. Remove from oven and cool completely.
  • While the chicken cools, assemble and prep the other ingredients. Place the green onions, celery, dill, lemon zest, mustard, and capers in a large bowl and toss together with a fork.
  • When the chicken is cool, shred or cube it. I prefer my chicken salad shredded. To do this, place one chicken breast on a cutting board or a plate. Stab two forks, backs facing each other, into the chicken and pull them away from each other to shred it. Or, if you prefer, stab the chicken with one fork and hold it stationary, while you drag the other fork through the meat to create shreds. See photos above.
  • Add the cooled, shredded (or cubed) meat to the bowl with your other ingredients.
  • Add the mayonnaise and toss with the chicken and vegetables to combine thoroughly. Taste for seasoning, and adjust as desired. Be careful, though: the smashed avocado gets salt of its own, so don’t overdo it on the sodium here unless you are a salt fiend.


For the toasts:
8 slices sourdough bread (2 slices per person; thick sliced would be lovely)
2 whole avocados
2 tablespoons lemon juice
¼ teaspoon black pepper
4 cloves garlic
½ teaspoon coarse salt
Handful of arugula or spinach leaves, optional


  • Toast your bread in a toaster or under the broiler until nicely golden. While it toasts, halve your avocados, remove the pits, and put the flesh in a small bowl. Add the lemon juice and pepper.
  • Peel and finely chop your garlic cloves. When they are well minced, sprinkle them with the ¼ teaspoon coarse salt. Using the flat of your knife, drag it across the garlic and salt, applying firm pressure. The idea here is that the salt will act as an abrasive, breaking down the garlic into a paste to make it less aggressive (biting into a chunk of raw garlic is an adventure, but not always a fun one), and to help it integrate more easily into the avocado. Repeat until the garlic becomes a pulpy, juicy paste.
  • Scrape the salted garlic paste into the avocado bowl, and smash the ingredients together with a fork into a chunky green mass. Delicious. Taste for seasoning and adjust to your liking, remembering that the acidity will be cut a bit when you add the toast and chicken salad components.
  • To build these open-face sandwiches, for each slice of toast, spread a few tablespoons of smashed avocado all the way out to the edges, scatter a few fresh arugula or spinach leaves over it, if desired, and then spoon ¼ – ½ cup chicken salad on top in an even layer.
  • That’s it! Serve up. Enjoy.

Simple Sourdough Boule, by weight #TwelveLoaves

Food Blog January 2014-3069Even though I’m getting sauced this year (is that joke already old?), I’m not abandoning my bread ambitions. I love the monthly challenge of Twelve Loaves, and I received a sourdough starter as a Christmas gift that, according to its bequeather, “needs some TLC.” Anxious to do it right, I scoured the internet for suggestions, of which there are no shortage, and in many cases, no consistency, which, delightfully and frustratingly, appears to be no problem at all! I distilled the various directions down into what felt like a successful (read: doable) routine for me. I fed it flour and water, it smells like San Francisco, and I’ve named it Bubblin’ Bertram. Is that weird? Probably.

Food Blog January 2014-3057

Bubblin’ Bertram bubblin’ away

This month’s Twelve Loaves challenge is “Keep it Simple.” As you know if you’ve spent any time on this blog, that tends to be difficult for me. I like a classic. I like a basic, fundamental recipe, but I like to twist it a little, to ask it to shimmy along with me into something fresh and bright and different. To make my predilection for complexity work with the challenge set, and to to celebrate both my new housemate (what? Yeast is alive!) and the kitchen scale Santa brought me (thanks, Mom and Dad!), I decided to face basics in a way I’ve never done before: by weight.

Food Blog January 2014-3058Baking by weight is hardly new. Shauna talks about it all the time, and it is just as true for baking with wheat flour as it is for using gluten-free flour mixes. Michael Ruhlman has written a whole book that relies on it. But it was new for me. There is something bizarrely scary about ignoring your measuring cups, though I’m not sure why, because working by ounces is admittedly so much more precise.

Food Blog January 2014-3059So I threw caution (and habit) to the wind and dove in, dipping up some of my burbling fed starter, glorying in the yeasty sour smell, and kneading it gently into flour, water, salt, and a breath each of butter and honey for a little extra flavor and moisture. It made a lovely soft dough, and I lovingly nestled it in an oiled bowl, covered it with plastic wrap, and set it aside to swell.


"Shaggy" dough

“Shaggy” dough

And then it sat. And I sat. And we sat. And I paced. And it did nothing. For hours. No rising. No bubbling. No noticeable change of any kind. I went back to the internet and searched for solace.

Food Blog January 2014-3061Three hours later, finally, my dough had almost doubled. In my warm home office, this usually takes a maximum of 90 minutes. But I had used no commercial yeast, only what was naturally in the starter. It takes those little guys a while to gulp down all the new food they’ve been handed, and to expel the gas that causes dough to puff and thicken.

Food Blog January 2014-3063Food Blog January 2014-3065Now that I knew time was the real challenge, everything else fell into place. I divided the ball of dough in two, lightly shuffled them around in some flour and shaped them into rounds, and let them rise again for an hour and a half. They didn’t puff very high, but they did expand into fat floppiness, like doll-sized beanbag chairs. But this didn’t seem to matter. Slashed artfully across the top to help gasses escape while baking, coerced into a steam-filled oven for half an hour, and we had a conjoined pair of soft, browned loaves, moist, warm, on the dense side of fluffy, and lightly but noticeably sour. Simple.

Food Blog January 2014-3066Food Blog January 2014-3067Simple Sourdough Boule, by weight
Makes 2 medium rounds
10 oz. sourdough starter, fed and bubbly (about 1 cup)
10 oz. warm water (body temperature or just above) (about 1 ¼ cups)
20 oz. bread flour (3 – 3 ½ fluffed, not packed, cups)
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons honey
2 tablespoons melted butter


  • Place the bowl you’ll be combining your ingredients in onto your kitchen scale. A weight will appear on the display. Press the tare button to bring the display back to zero – you’ll do this every time you add a new ingredient, to make the additions easier to measure.
  • Add enough sourdough starter to bring the weight to 10 ounces, then press the tare button to return to zero.
  • Add enough water to bring the weight to 10 ounces, then press the tare button again: back to zero.
  • Add 20 ounces of bread flour, remembering that, depending on your scale’s settings, it might switch over to pounds when you hit 16 ounces. This caught me off guard. You’ll need, then, 1 pound, 4 ounces of flour.
  • Add the salt, the honey, and the melted butter. Since these are such small quantities, I haven’t given them in weights. Minor adjustments in one direction or the other will not hurt the bread or change the process.
  • With all your ingredients in, use the paddle attachment (for a stand mixer) or a wooden spoon (if you’re working without the machine) to combine the ingredients into a shaggy, rough dough – you’re looking just to incorporate everything. See “shaggy dough” photo above. At this point, if you’re using a stand mixer, switch from the paddle attachment to the dough hook. If you’re using a wooden spoon, now’s the time to dump the dough out onto a floured board and work with your hands.
  • Using your tool of choice, knead for about 8 minutes, or until the dough ceases to feel so sticky, and becomes elastic and smooth. Mine felt a bit lazy. I’m not sure how else to explain that – it moved sluggishly around the mixer, like a sleepy blob.
  • Lightly oil the inside of the bowl (you can use a new, clean bowl for this, but I just shimmy the blob of dough around to distribute oil underneath it), cover with plastic wrap, and set aside to rise in a warm place until doubled. For me, this took about 3 hours. Your sourdough yeasts are a bit sleepier than instant or active dry yeast, and need time to feast. It will happen eventually. You just can’t rush them.
  • When the dough has finally doubled, punch it down by pressing your knuckles into its center and letting the collected gases escape. Let it rest for 5-10 minutes to get its breath back.
  • Dump the dough out onto a floured board. Using a dough scraper, a pizza cutter, or a sharp knife, divide it in half. Shape each half into a round by holding the dough ball in your hands and stretching the top taut, tucking the excess underneath. Each time you stretch and tuck, turn the dough a quarter turn or so. You can also do this while the dough is resting on your board, turning it and tucking the excess, which will form something that looks like a balloon tie or a belly button underneath. Check out this series of photos from the kitchn for helpful illustrations.
  • Place your rounds on a baking sheet and let them rise for another 90 minutes, until they have puffed again (they won’t quite double this time, but you will see noticeable expansion).
  • About 45 minutes before you are ready to start baking, preheat your oven to 450F. Position the rack you’ll be placing the loaves on in the top third of the oven, and if you’re using a baking stone, place that on this top rack to preheat as well. Position the other rack in the bottom third of the oven and, if you have one, stick your cast iron skillet on this bottom rack, allowing it to preheat as well. You’ll see why in a moment.
  • When your bread has risen again and is ready to bake, slit the tops a few times with a razor or a very sharp knife. This helps the loaf swell and rise, since you’re breaking the taut skin you created while shaping. It also looks artful, and we like that.
  • Slide your loaves on their baking tray gently into the oven on the top rack (or, if you are using a baking stone, put the loaves directly on the stone, taking care not to jostle them too much. We worked so hard shaping them; we want to maintain that structure). Then, working quickly and carefully, fill a teacup with ice cubes and empty this into the preheated cast iron skillet you placed on the bottom oven rack. Close the oven door immediately. The purpose here is to collect steam. The ice, going immediately from solid to gas, will create a nice cloud of steam. This helps bread swell quickly and stay moist. You don’t want endless steam, because that would produce a soft crust, but a good blast right at the beginning of baking ensures a soft, nicely textured loaf of a good size, and a crisp crust, which forms as the oven dries out.
  • Bake for 30 minutes, or until the tops are pale gold and the bottoms feel hollow when thumped. These loaves will likely not brown as much as a standard loaf of bread. Here’s why: as it rises, the starches in flour are converted into sugar, which the yeasts eat. The anxious, hungry yeasts in sourdough consume these sugars much faster than standard yeast, so there is not much left to caramelize into that dark, browned surface we are accustomed to seeing on a loaf of homemade bread. No harm done, though, your loaves may just be a bit on the pale side.
  • Remove from the oven and let cool at least 10 minutes before slicing. I know, scorching-hot-just-from-the-oven bread is a glorious thing, but your loaves need a few minutes to set their internal structure. If you slice immediately, the whole loaf will crush and mash against your knife. Wait just a bit. Besides, this way you won’t burn your fingers.