Improv Salads

Chicken Salad with Prunes


This week saw the need for some culinary ingenuity here in deepest, darkest Worcestershire.

My daughter caught a bug and was off school for the tail end of the week, effectively preventing me from going shopping and as I had already procrastinated weekly shopping to Thursday’s ToDo List, we therefore all had to make do with what little was in the house already.

Whilst it was hardly a Gomser Cholera Pie situation, it did nudge me to be a little more creative in pulling ingredients together. I also experimented with the presentation by stacking the various elements in a tower, which made for much more eye appeal and created interest where there wasn’t much. (Are stacks/towers in or out this season? I can’t keep up). ANYHOO – I thought they looked very striking, especially when each individual element was visible. If you’ve got professional rings – great! – otherwise, opening steamed pudding tins both ends, as mentioned way back in Muffins, gives you a food-grade metal ring for a fraction of the cost. A flat-bottomed, straight-sided glass performs well to ‘tamp-down’ each layer.

I had some bits and pieces of vegetables and chicken in the fridge, some pickles, frozen peas, half a cucumber, eggs, plain yogurt. and mayonnaise. A veritable Deja Food banquet! What follows is more a list of suggestions based on my tinkering to encourage you to have a go yourself and – literally – throw something together from next to nothing.

Vegetables: Cooked al-dente, veggies retain a lot more of their colour and are still perfectly fine up to 2 days after cooking, provided they are stored in the fridge. Don’t chop roughly, rather dice them small so that they fit well together in layers in the moulds. Broccoli and cauliflower should be separated into tiny florets. Frozen peas are brilliant – ready in a flash, sweet and a fabulous pop of green. Caramelise some onions and toss through some mushrooms – store in your fridge for instant flavour boost. Personally, sweetcorn is the only tinned vegetable I keep in the cupboard, but tins of pre-soaked and cooked pulses such a chick peas, butter beans, lentils, etc. are invaluable. If you’re using fresh salad veggies, de-seed them to help avoid too much moisture adversely affecting your stack (tomatoes, cucumber etc).

Meat: The remains of a larger join are great. Trim off any fat, sinews and skin – any meat making an encore appearance at the table should be just as carefully prepared as it’s debut.

Fish: It’s more usual for seafood, rather than fish, to be served cold. Having said that, a few tins of firm fish such as tuna, salmon, sardines and pilchards in the cupboard are always handy. Drain and flake lightly – don’t crush into a pulp.

Fruit: Don’t limit your imagination merely to the contents of the fruit bowl – dried fruit, especially the tarter fruits such as apricots, cranberries and barberries can provide quite a refreshing zing to a cold salad. That being said, my current favourite salad fruit is Bramley apple, diced small – so sour, so refreshing!

Eggs: Hardboiled, even a single egg can bulk up what seems to be a very meagre salad. Chop the white separately, then push the yolk through a sieve for a delicate drift of yellow.

Pickles: Fantastic to have to hand – piquant, crunchy and with an almost limitless shelf-life. I love the rich colour of red cabbage and beetroot, capers, walnuts, small silverskin onions, and mini gherkins. I also have a jar of larger cucumbers pickled in brine, for something a little different.

Mayonnaise: Perfect for acting as the ‘glue’ to keep the layers of the salad stacks together. I prefer my mayo on the tart side, so I mix it 50/50 with plain yoghurt. Season with salt and pepper, and sharpen with lemon juice if liked.


  • Lay each item inside your ring and press down firmly to compact.
  • If required, spread a thin layer of mayonnaise over the top to bind.
  • To keep the layer definition crisp, lay your ingredients around the edge of the ring, without any dressing, then fill in the middle and add dressing as required.
  • Make your layers contrast in colour, texture or flavour.
  • Add the sieved yolk just before serving, as you want it to sit lightly on top of your stack.
  • Allow finished stacks to ‘set’ in the fridge to firm up in shape and for the flavours to mix.
  • Made in larger rings, these salads are great for weekday lunches – they can be transported in the rings and the rings removed just before serving.

Below are the variations that I tried and my comments on each. Have fun!

Chicken Salad with PrunesChicken Salad with prunes

I’ve seen many variations of this salad on various Russian websites, and got to thinking that so many endorsements must mean that it’s not the weird combination it first seems.

Composition/Construction as in the photo – obviously you’d start with the bottom layer.

  • slices of cucumber
  • sieved egg yolk
  • a little mayonnaise
  • chopped egg white
  • caramelised onions and mushrooms
  • chopped chicken
  • a little mayonnaise
  • chopped, moist prunes.

Verdict: I found the prunes a little on the sweet side – but I had the end of a packet of softened ready-to-eat prunes to use up. Next time I think I’d go with chopped, dried prunes and soak in a little fruit juice just before putting the salad together, because I’m really liking the startling black colour they bring to this salad. The mushroom/onion combination was really tasty – as stated above, just tossed thinly sliced mushrooms into some onions as they cooked in a little butter and seasoned with salt and pepper. Since they were already moist, I didn’t need to use any mayonnaise between them and the layers either side.

Vegetable stack saladVeggie Pickle Salad Stack

A vegetarian mix of vegetables and pickles.


  • sprig of dill
  • onion/mushroom mixture
  • diced cornichons – mini pickled cucumbers
  • a little mayonnaise
  • diced cooked carrot
  • a little mayonnaise
  • chopped egg white
  • a little mayonnaise
  • cooked garden peas
  • a little mayonnaise
  • peeled and diced cooked potatoes

Verdict: A great side salad combination – the cornichons give a great crunch. The colours are a bit muted, so next time I’d probably add a few more layers and colours with some sweetcorn or golden carrot, broccoli and/or cauliflower, some shiny red kidney beans or  chopped red pepper/tomato. The addition of a couple of layers of cheese would turn this stack into a delicious meal option – imagine the looks of admiration at the office when you unveil this little beauty.



Purple and Green Salad

I love the contrast of the green against the purple, and the three ‘white’ fillings set them off beautifully.


  • sprig of dill
  • a little mayonnaise
  • chopped egg white
  • french beans
  • pickled red cabbage – well drained on kitchen paper
  • diced chicken tossed in a little mayonnaise
  • garden peas – cooked from frozen and chilled in cold water
  • a little mayonnaise
  • diced beetroot
  • cooked, peeled, diced potatoes tossed in a little mayonnaise

Verdict: Probably my favourite of the three, due to the combination of colours and flavours. The pickles added a great zing of sharpness and the purples contrasted well against the creamy ‘white’ layers. Next time I would add a little variation to the white layers in the form of additional seasonings, chopped herbs, etc as the mayonnaise dulled the flavours to the point that it required some concentrated study to determine which particular ‘white’ was on the fork. Raw cauliflower or even a startling white feta or mozzarella would be other white options – beetroot/white cheese/walnut is one of my favourite flavour combos – I use it in salads, quiches, scones, pies….


One Comment on “Improv Salads”

  1. Sylvia says:

    I love these little stack salads. Perfect for a different option when having a brunch. I love the color in the purple and green salad, but I think the flavors in the chicken salad would be my favorite. I might even try dried (but soaked) cranberries instead of prunes.

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