Salad had me at hello

Do not make this salad.

I know, the Taste section is supposed to be filled with recipes you want to make, recipes you cut out and prepare again and again.

This week's What's Cooking recipe -- chicken, watercress and walnut salad -- is not one of those recipes.

Why? The ingredients are expensive, and some of them are hard to find. The dish takes an impossible amount of time. Plus, it requires that you use pretty much every pan in the kitchen.

And for what?

A salad.

I chose the recipe because of a picture. It was on the cover of a cookbook the publisher sent, hoping we would write about it.

The photo was beautiful -- brilliant green watercress leaves (not stems -- more on that later), hefty hunks of chicken and shiny, glistening rivers of salad dressing.

It had me at hello.

Then I went shopping. The discount grocery store I go to every week did not have watercress. Ditto for the walnut oil, so I had to stop at a second store. When I got to the check-out, I was shocked to discover that 8.5 ounces of walnut oil costs a whopping $8.49. In all, ingredients for this salad cost $24.59.

Preparing the salad was tedious. Make broth, cook chicken, cool chicken, shred chicken, stem watercress. It's not easy to take the stems off every one of those little green wisps. Needless to say, I gave up and left some on. Mistake. The stems have the texture of pine needles.

One nice thing about this salad was the dressing. It was the perfect balance of tangy and sweet.

Oh, and the walnut oil. I forgot to drizzle it on top. But I did taste it, and it's delicious. I'm glad I discovered a new ingredient, and I plan to add it to salad dressings.

What the testers had to say

I didn't think to chop up the watercress stems to make for more manageable bites, but would definitely recommend doing so. The flavor combination was very nice, but lacked something. Maybe a hint of citrus or Craisins would have given this salad a bit more life. I also found the amount of oil in the dressing to really weigh down the dish; it was surprisingly filling.

-- Ann Griffith, Modesto

This is a super chicken salad recipe for spring and summer, even if it is just a bit time-consuming, what with toasting walnuts, simmering broth and chopping celery, onion and carrots, but it is not difficult. I didn't make as much broth as the recipe said -- only about 2½ cups, and used only three half breasts. I turned the meat as it poached in the broth. (Suggestion: Make all the broth if you are recovering from a cold and cough -- and drink it!)

The salad tastes really good! The poached chicken is tender and the walnuts give the dish a nice crunch. The dressing along with the watercress and walnut oil make a slightly unusual (in a good way!) flavor combination. I went ahead and splurged on the walnut oil; it can be used later on any kind of salad. My other half (O.H.), though definitely not a chicken salad fan, pronounced it "good" and asked for more!

-- Joan Peck, Modesto

Two aspects of this recipe are excellent: the court bouillon (used to poach the chicken) and the vinaigrette. I'll use these recipes again and again. Combining them with walnut halves just didn't seem to produce anything worth repeating. Perhaps a drizzle of walnut oil would have helped, but I wouldn't buy walnut oil for one recipe. The watercress played a very minor role in this dish, hardly repaying the effort of removing its stems. All in all, a disappointing salad.

-- Ralph Moore, Modesto

The chicken was tender and the watercress was crunchy. A great combination of flavors after the vinaigrette is added. I used canola oil; in the final step, however, I pressed a few walnuts through my garlic press to extract a few drops of walnut oil. It took little time to prepare except for removing the lower part of the watercress stems. This salad would also be very nice to serve at a ladies luncheon.

-- Shirley Cantele, Modesto

Not being a fan of watercress, I wasn't sure about this one. I expected the chicken, toasted walnuts and dressing to be tastier. It was rather bland.

-- Jan Gibson, Modesto

This would be a great dish to have on a nice summer evening with a nice glass of chardonnay and some French bread.

-- Donna Boots, Modesto

I think this recipe suffers from an identity crisis. It didn't say how many it served, but called for 3 pounds of chicken breast (which is a lot) and only one bunch of watercress, stemmed (which is not a lot). It is called a salad but didn't call for any other greens, so I wasn't sure what to make of it. I dutifully made the broth even though it was a salad recipe and not a soup recipe. A suggestion was made to use rotisserie chicken from the store, and if so, then this is really just a recipe for salad dressing! That said, the dressing was very good. I mixed the watercress in with romaine, topped the chicken with green onions, avocado, dried cranberries, croutons and the walnuts, and it was delicious!

-- Karin Reenstierna, Modesto

Bee staff writer Kerry McCray can be reached at 578-2358 or at