NYC: Chicken Salad Gets An Update With Crispy Pickles And...Gribenes!

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New Year's is a time of reconsideration and reflection — a day to evaluate the past, plan the future and generally consider the path that you're on. With that in mind, it seems like there's no better time than Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, to consider the past – and future – of delicatessen food, the most famous of Jewish cuisines. In honor of the holiday, here's a look at one of the restaurants that is striving to bring it into the future.

Like most other peasant cuisines, traditional Ashkenazi Jewish food is a blunt instrument: a collection of dishes designed to pummel hunger into submission with piles of spiced meats, mounds of dense carbs, and rivers of oil. [Edit: Plus, there's gefilte fish, but we're not going to get into that]

For the farmers who first created Jewish soul food, flavor was a secondary consideration, and the issue of health – when it arose – was more concerned with ensuring that everyone had enough to eat, not with whether or not the table was clogged with cholesterol and sodium.

But while Jewish peasant food – and its descendant, delicatessen food — is perfect for a day's hard work in the fields or factory floor, it has lost its way in the modern food landscape, where most diners are trying to cut down on calories and amp up flavor. In New York, America's Jewish food homeland, the thousands of delis that used to crowd every block have been whittled down to a few iconic classics, trying to keep their heads above water in a sea of panini shops and corner sushi joints.

For the handful of chefs attempting to preserve the gems of the Jewish table, deli food offers a challenging question: is it possible to reclaim deli food for a higher-flavor, lower-fat age without undermining its fundamental character? A few months ago, I looked into one such attempt, the Almighty Brisket sandwich at New York's Joe Dough sandwich shop. In the case of chef Joe Dobias, the solution to the riddle lay in combining a classic Jewish foodstuff – beef brisket – with flavors that were more on-trend, like Vietnamese peppercorns and aged cheddar.

Mile End Deli has taken a slightly different route. Rather than overlay traditional Jewish food with flavors from other cultures, they have chosen to apply contemporary food philosophy, with its focus on smaller portions of carefully-seasoned cuisine, to the Jewish table. A prime example of this is their chicken salad sandwich, a bland deli classic that Mile End has supercharged for contemporary palates.

The chicken salad sandwich is a perfect illustration of the strengths and weaknesses of basic deli cuisine. A mix of white-meat chicken, chopped celery and mayonnaise piled between two slices of bread, the sandwich offers a rich vein of carbohydrates, protein and fat. Flavor is minimal, and while celery provides an interesting textural snap, it doesn't do much to overcome the general blandness of the enterprise.

Mile End's version takes the dull classic and brightens it up with a combination of better ingredients and surprising accompaniments. On the surface, their chicken salad seems fairly standard, albeit with a bit less mayonnaise than the norm. Soon, however, the details emerge: the chicken, for example, moves beyond the basic bland breast meat to include more flavorful – and texturally interesting – cuts of dark meat. The traditional celery is joined by scallions, and the house-made mayonnaise has a sharp citric tang that comes from preserved lemons.

But while the chicken salad represents an incremental improvement on the classic, the sandwich's additions are where the real excitement happens. Offsetting the mild creaminess of the chicken salad, Mile End piles the sandwich with crispy pickles: dilled, vinegar-soaked cucumbers provide a tangy, cooling touch, while pickled cherry peppers offer a sweet and sour, lightly-spicy note.

Finishing off the sandwich, Mile End doubles down on the traditional Jewish taste notes. The bread is thick-sliced challah, lightly pan-crisped in schmaltz, the clarified chicken fat that provides the richness to so many traditional Jewish dishes. Adding another level of flavor and texture, Mile End also includes a smattering of gribenes, the crispy fried chicken skin that is like a slightly richer, saltier version of the Spanish chicharron. Taken in total, the sandwich balances fresh, bright flavors and reassuringly creamy, comforting base notes.

(Or, to put it in context of Rosh Hashanah, Mile End's chicken salad balances the familiar comfort of the past with the exciting challenge of the future. Or perhaps that's taking things a bit too far.)

While New York City is the homeland when it comes to Jewish cuisine in America, the real mark of a culinary revolution is how much it can influence the culture at large. For Mile End's creators Noah and Mae Bernamoff, the bid for broad-scale relevancy extends beyond the boundaries of their deli and into the pages of The Mile End Cookbook, which includes their updates of most of the Jewish culinary pantheon, from latkes to knishes to pickles. For anyone interested in exploring how a traditional cuisine can weather a cultural transformation, it's required reading.

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