In 1936, Robert Cobb, president of a restaurant group that owned the Hollywood Brown Derby, put together a salad from leftovers in the restaurant’s refrigerator for his pal, Sid Grauman of Grauman’s Chinese Theater.
According to legend, the pickin’s were slim that night, and yet Cobb was able to assemble an interesting creation: good quality blue cheese, perfectly seasoned and poached chicken, avocado, bacon, hard-cooked eggs, herbs, tomatoes and a variety of salad greens and fresh herbs.
He gave everything a fine dice, and then for presentation arranged those ingredients in tight but separate formation, with the greens on the bottom. At the table, after his guest had a chance to appreciate the colorful array, Cobb tossed it all together with a fine vinaigrette.
The combination of flavors and textures was perfect, and a classic was born.
More than 75 years later, variations abound. But in my mind, the successful alterations are strictly architectural — nobody has fiddled with the ingredients and come up with an improvement. In fact, my only favorite spin-off was created in a San Francisco restaurant, MacArthur Park, back in the early 1970s. Individual salads were built up layer by delectable layer in porcelain souffle bowls and crowned with a topping of Roquefort dressing.
The result was a delightful stratification of colors and flavors, but not much real difference after all was said and, uh, crunched.
As Cobb proved, side salads become a main dish in so many simple ways: by adding meats, cheeses and eggs, of course, or beans and grains. Roasted vegetables, still warm and caramelized from the oven, draped over some tender salad greens and sprinkled with some blue cheese is a jazzy maneuver, too.
And because it’s time to bring the new crop of hazelnuts into the kitchen, consider them a part of the formula as well.
I’ve always maintained that its crunchy-toasty-sweet-yet-smoky character partners beautifully with such things as bacon, blue cheese, chicken, avocado, and tomato.
Wait a minute, that’s sounding an awful lot like a Cobb Salad. Well, what do you know? The addition is a winner. Give it a try!
Indeed, hazelnuts provide an extra depth of flavor to everything they’re brought in contact with, so don’t take the concept lightly. It’s simple, and it works.
When I’m garnishing main dish salads with hazelnuts, I like them to be extravagantly varied in size, the way they become when crushed gently with the handle of a chef’s knife.
So in the next few weeks, give this collection of main dish salads a try. Somehow autumn — the season that eases us away from the salad days of summer and prepares our appetites for the soul-warming stews of winter — seems like the perfect time to have it both ways.
For a speedy beef salad, season and cook skirt steak to desired doneness. Whisk together 1/4 cup red wine vinegar, 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard, 1/4 teaspoon salt &freshly ground black pepper, a pinch of sugar, 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil. Toss vinaigrette with salad greens, sliced steak, a healthy crumbling of blue cheese and a handful of roasted and coarsely chopped hazelnuts.
The almost-traditional Cobb salad
2 poached or grilled chicken breast halves, finely diced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 fresh lemon
Extra virgin olive oil
1/2 head firm iceberg lettuce, finely chopped
1 small head chicory (or other coarse, curly-leafed salad green), finely chopped
1/2 head romaine, finely chopped
1 medium bunch watercress, coarsely chopped to yield 1 cup of leaves and tender stems
6 slices crispy cooked bacon, crumbled
3 hard-cooked eggs, peeled and diced
2 tablespoons minced fresh chives or green onions
4 ounces good-quality blue cheese
3/4 cup chopped darkly-roasted and skinned hazelnuts
2 medium-sized ripe, firm tomatoes, finely diced
1 cup of a good vinaigrette (homemade is preferable, or a good quality store-bought)
Toss the chicken in a small bowl with a sprinkle of salt and pepper and a drizzle of fresh lemon juice and olive oil. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve.
Choose a fine, big salad bowl with a wide shape. Place the iceberg lettuce, chicory, romaine and watercress in the bowl, tossing to combine them.
Halve the avocado, peel and dice it into 1/4-inch pieces. Turn it into a small bowl and sprinkle with a few drops of the fresh lemon juice and extra virgin olive oil.
To serve: Toss the greens with about 1/3 cup of the Vinaigrette. Arrange the other ingredients in strips across the top of the greens. From left to right, lay on the avocado, bacon pieces, hard-cooked eggs, green onion, blue cheese, hazelnuts, and the tomatoes. Bring the salad to the table, then toss with additional vinaigrette.
Yields 4 servings.
Note: If you wish to arrange the salad in advance, do not toss the greens with any of the vinaigrette before bringing it to the table or the greens will become limp; simply cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate, then toss with the vinaigrette at the table.
Variations: You could take your cue from the San Francisco restaurant, MacArthur Park, and layer the salad in individual souffle dishes. Each guest may then toss his or her own — or not — as desired.
Beverage thoughts: With all of the salad components, there’s a complex flavor profile to consider that has always sent me in the direction of a crisp, clean, straightforward wine, such as a lovely Pinot Gris or Pinot Blanc. A nice craft beer choice would be something that is equally simple and clean-tasting, such as pilsner, which would be light-bodied with a bit of malt and floral character to it.
If you like Waldorf salad, you probably won’t like this.
Just kidding! Sort of.
This is Waldorf salad on vacation in Albuquerque. The hazelnuts compliment the feta, apple and cherries. This is one of those great “Ladies Luncheon” sorts of offerings. It would even be a lovely addition to a brunch buffet:
Grilled chicken salad with jalapeno dressing
3/4-1 cup chili mayonnaise (recipe follows)
4 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves (6 to 8 ounces each), grilled, chilled, and cut into bite- sized chunks
1/2 cup chopped celery
1/4 cup dried cherries
1/2 cup chopped apple
1/2 cup chopped roasted and skinned hazelnuts
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 cups chopped mixed salad greens
2 Roma tomatoes, cored, sliced
1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese
To serve: Combine the mayonnaise with the chicken, celery, raisins, apples, hazelnuts, salt and pepper. Mix well. Serve on top of mixed greens with sliced tomatoes on the side and a crumbling of feta on top.
Makes 4 servings as an entree.
Chile mayonnaise: Remove stems, seeds an ribs from 1 Serrano pepper and 1/2 fresh jalapeno pepper; coarsely chop. In a blender or food processor, puree the peppers, along with 3 cloves of peeled fresh garlic, and 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice. Scrape the mixture into a small bowl, then whisk in 1 cup good quality mayonnaise.
Makes about 1 1/8 cups mayonnaise
Beverage thoughts: The chiles, dried fruits and fresh apples make this a great match for a luscious Gewurztraminer. For the beer drinkers, a lightly hopped ale with a bit of fruit would be nice.
Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis, Ore., food writer, artist, and author of “Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit,” and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at email@example.com, or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.