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EDIBLES: Salad sensation celebrates 75 years

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  • | 4:00 a.m. May 23, 2012
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It was an April lunch with Margaret Wise at the Bijou Café that launched this column. Wise was pining for one of her long-time favorites, the Cobb salad, the great classic salade composée cited by as one of the “Top 10 Food Inventions by Americans.”

The story behind the Cobb salad is that Bob Cobb, a first cousin of slugger Ty Cobb and the owner of The Brown Derby restaurant on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, was prowling around the kitchen late one night, looking for something to eat. The year was 1937. From the refrigerator, he pulled out a head of lettuce (presumably iceberg), some romaine, watercress, avocado, tomatoes, a hard-boiled egg, chives, cheese and some old-fashioned French dressing. He swiped some crisp bacon from a busy chef and chop, chop … the Cobb salad was born. Sid Grauman, of the eponymous Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, was with Cobb that night. Returning the next day, he asked for a “Cobb Salad.” It was so good that it went on the menu and stayed there.

Like most legends, this one has variations. One dates the salad to 1929. Another says that Robert Kreis, executive chef at The Brown Derby, developed the dish in Bob Cobb’s honor. All agree that it was an instant hit.

It remains one today, and the preparation has changed little over time. The lettuce and all the toppings should be finely chopped. As served at the original Brown Derby restaurants, the slivers of greens were so thin they slipped between the tines of a fork. Disney acquired the rights to the Brown Derby name and opened a reproduction of the original in 1989 in Orlando; the salad there has authentically skinny shreds, but most contemporary interpretations are not quite so fine. The other ingredients are traditionally arranged in stripes over the greens. The original dressing was a red wine vinaigrette.

Michael’s On East has had the Cobb on the lunch menu since it opened 25 years ago. Proprietor Michael Klauber says he uses pretty much all romaine and sources as many ingredients as possible locally or regionally, but he basically honors the original preparation.

“I tend to want it to be more classic rather than to invent some kind of new version,” he says.

The Cobb is one of the top-selling salads on his lunch menu, along with Chinese chicken salad and the Wendy’s salad. Michael’s Cobb is a big salad and is also available as a half-portion. The half is more than enough for me, but Klauber says, “You’d be amazed how many people clean that plate.”

Wise was pining at the Bijou, because the Cobb salad is not presently on the menu there. It was for about 15 years until 2011 when it was bumped by a combination of customer interest in new options and limited space on the page. Proprietor J.P. Knaggs was kind enough to share the café’s recipe and to make one up for photography. He hinted that the Cobb salad might be reappearing on his menu this summer.

That would certainly make my friend happy, and if you feel the same way, it couldn’t hurt to let Knaggs know. Hint: His email is [email protected]. Chop, chop!

Bijou Café’s Cobb Salad
Yield: 6 servings Start to finish: 20 to 30 minutes assuming that chicken, eggs and bacon are prepared in advance.

1 to 2 heads Romaine lettuce, cleaned and chopped into 1-inch pieces
1/2 pound spring mixed greens
1 3-pound roasted chicken. Skin and bones removed chopped coarsely
6 hard boiled eggs, chopped
1/2 pound crisply cooked bacon
1/2 cup black olives, chopped
1/2 pound white mushrooms, sliced
1/4 cup red onion, chopped
6 ounces crumbled blue cheese

2 ripe avocados, sliced for garnish
2 medium sized, ripe tomatoes, sliced for garnish

Dijon dressing
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1/4 cup Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
1 teaspoon chopped parsley
1 cup olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

• Combine the first four ingredients for the dressing in a metal non-reactive bowl. Slowly whisk in the olive oil in a steady drizzle. Dressing will thicken as the oil and acids combine. Add the parsley and salt and pepper to taste. Cover and let stand while combining the salad ingredients.
• Ingredients can be ornately laid out on top of the lettuces in neat and separate rows or for a more casual look simply tossed together. Add the dressing just before serving.


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