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Salad with chicken, berries and poppy seed dressing is a bright, light summer meal

The recipe makes twice as much dressing as you’ll need, so you’ll have leftovers for your next salad.  (Tom McCorkle/For the Washington Post)
The recipe makes twice as much dressing as you’ll need, so you’ll have leftovers for your next salad. (Tom McCorkle/For the Washington Post)
By Ellie Krieger Special to the Washington Post

A big main-course salad is a summer meal that can inspire awe even at its most basic, considering the glory of the fresh produce alone. The lettuces I buy from my local farmer, brim with so much life and vibrant color this time of year, just a pile of it dressed with good-quality oil, a squeeze of lemon juice, a sprinkle of flaky salt and freshly ground pepper, along with some kind of protein, makes for an uplifting meal.

This salad starts with that idea, but then takes it to the next level, ratcheting up the bright, fresh, summer flavors and adding layers of texture for a dish that salutes the season in a truly exciting way.

It beings with a mix of two lettuces, tender Bibb and crisp Romaine. Feel free to use any mild-tasting lettuce you like, but if possible, buy locally grown for that reverence-worthy fresh factor. Thinly sliced fennel brings a layer of cool crunch as well as a gentle anise essence (celery would also work well).

That mix, along with shredded chicken breast, is tossed with a creamy, bright lemon-poppy seed dressing until everything is lusciously coated. The dressing, which comes together in a blender, has a lovely sweet-tart balance, but with considerably less sweet than is typically used in a store-bought version and, instead of sugar, relies on less-refined honey.

For the chicken, I like to poach mine (which can be done a few days ahead) because it comes out extra-juicy and with a silky texture, but chicken pulled from a rotisserie bird also works well.

The dressed salad, abundant with chicken, flecked with poppy seed and fragrant with lemon, is piled onto plates, then juicy, sweet blueberries, a crunch of toasted sunflower seeds and scallion greens are scattered on top.

The dish is so lovely, it begs you to pause and admire it before you dig in. After that first bite, you’ll know you are in for a satisfying meal that tastes like summer on a plate.

Chicken Salad With Berries and Lemon-Poppy Seed Dressing

For the dressing

2 scallions

½ cup neutral oil, such as grapeseed, safflower or canola oil

6 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (from 2 lemons)

2 tablespoons honey or agave, plus more to taste

2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard, plus more to taste

½ teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste

¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste

1 tablespoon poppy seeds

For the salad

8 ounces skinless, boneless chicken breast halves, or 2 cups cooked, shredded chicken breast from a rotisserie chicken

⅛ teaspoon kosher salt

⅛ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

¼ cup raw sunflower seeds

6 cups torn romaine lettuce hearts

6 cups torn bibb lettuce leaves

1 cup thinly sliced fennel

½ cup fresh blueberries

Make the dressing: Coarsely chop the light green and white parts of the scallions and set aside the dark green parts. In the pitcher of a blender, combine the oil, lemon juice, honey, scallions, lemon zest, mustard, salt and pepper with the chopped scallions and blend until smooth. Taste, and add more honey, mustard, salt and/or pepper, if desired. Stir in the poppy seeds. You should get about 1 cup of dressing.

Make the salad: If using uncooked chicken, place it between two pieces of plastic wrap and pound it to an even ¾-inch thickness. Transfer to a deep skillet and add enough water to cover the chicken by about 1 inch.

Set the skillet over medium-high heat until the water comes to a gentle boil, then reduce the heat to its lowest level, cover and simmer until the chicken is just cooked through, with an internal temperature of 165 degrees, 5 to 7 minutes.

Let cool slightly, then using your fingers or two forks, shred the chicken and season with salt and pepper. Use immediately or refrigerate until needed.

In a small, dry skillet over medium-high heat, toast the sunflower seeds, stirring frequently, until fragrant and a shade darker, about 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and transfer to a small bowl.

When ready to serve, thinly slice the reserved scallion greens. In a large bowl toss the lettuces, fennel and shredded chicken with half of the dressing (about ½ cup). Divide among the serving plates and top with the blueberries, toasted sunflower seeds and scallion greens.

Yield: 4 servings

Make ahead: The chicken can be poached up to 3 days in advance and refrigerated in an airtight container.

Storage notes: Leftover dressing can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 1 week.

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