Since its inception in 1937, the infamous Cobb Salad has appeared on menus all across the nation. It is the perfect “house” salad for a restaurant because it utilizes leftovers. Bacon from breakfast service, roasted chicken from the night before, hard-boiled eggs, bleu cheese and avocado from lunch. Throw them together with a little lettuce and drizzle with a creamy dressing and you have the basis for a Cobb. Cost effective and extremely popular, it is a restaurateur’s dream creation.
The origin is somewhat murky, but everyone agrees that it was created by Bob Cobb, the president and co-owner of the Brown Derby Restaurant chain in Los Angeles. Late one night, Bob was hungry and looking for something in the restaurant’s kitchen. He rummaged around, pulled together some of the day’s leftovers and tossed them with some of the restaurant’s signature French dressing. Bob’s buddy, Sid Grauman (of Grauman’s Chinese Theater fame) witnessed this creation and requested it when he came in for lunch the next day. It quickly became a standard menu item and remained on the menu until the day the restaurant closed in 1980.
In its heyday the Derby was more famous than its infamous clientele. A-listers such as Jean Harlow, Bette Davis, John Barrymore and Frank Sinatra all were regulars. Clark Gable proposed to Carol Lombard there in 1939 and when Marlene Deitrich showed up in trousers she caused a major scene – it just wasn’t done in those days, ladies always wore dresses. Many movie deals were closed over lunch and if you had an important call, a telephone was brought to your table so you weren’t inconvenienced. It was always a place to see and be seen so it isn’t surprising that the two queens of gossip held court there as well. Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, fierce rivals, were often seen entertaining their guests during long lunches, their tables at opposite sides of the restaurant.
One of my favorite episodes of “I Love Lucy” was when the foursome went to Hollywood because Ricky had a role in a movie. Lucy’s unceasing efforts to rub elbows with the rich and famous were in overdrive. Intent on seeing movie stars, she and Ethel went to the Brown Derby for lunch. To their delight (and ours) the gorgeous William Holden was sitting in the next booth. I won’t tell you the outcome, but you can imagine that Lucy once again got herself in a whole lot of trouble that had the audience roaring with laughter.
When I moved to Los Angeles I was thrilled to see the original building still standing although it was a bit rundown and not nearly the “hot spot” it once had been. But it brought back memories of the elegance of Old Hollywood and always brought a smile to my face when I drove by on Wilshire Blvd.
I love Cobb salads and have since I was a child. There is something wonderful about the combination of smooth and creamy, salty and crunchy, crispy, light and tangy all wrapped up in one dish. It hits all the five basic tastes, exactly what every dish wishes it could do. Plus it has bacon on it and I love me some bacon! LOL But darn it, I need something to take on a picnic this weekend for Labor Day and as delicious as this salad is, it won’t travel well. Wait, a tortilla can hold all of the ingredients neatly for me and is a snap to prepare. Voila! The perfect picnic food!
I’m not crazy about bleu cheese so I usually substitute Ranch dressing, and you can make the same kind of substitutions to suit your own tastes. Replacing the chicken with shrimp, crab or lobster is truly indulgent and one of my favorite changes. Cubes of cooked ham are good in place of the bacon, and there are many other ingredients that work well together that are different from the traditional list of toppings. Play around with it and you may discover a new favorite.
Riffing on the Cobb theme, you could make this the center of a buffet table. Fill a huge bowl with a mixture of greens and then set out a slew of options for your guests to choose from. It would be an “upscale” (pardon the pun) version of the perennial salad bar, but a lot better tasting.
So, whether you are throwing a buffet party, taking sandwiches to a picnic in the park, heading to the beach, or just making dinner for the family, here are two versions of Cobb salad. One is my version, updated for easy transportation, and just so we won’t forget, the Original as it was printed in the Brown Derby Cookbook.
Hooray for Hollywood!
Kitchen Skill: How to make Perfectly Hard Cooked Eggs
Place a single layer of raw eggs in a large saucepan. Cover with enough cool tap water to cover by at least one inch and add 1 tsp salt. Bring to just below boiling over high heat. The water will be steaming and small bubbles will regularly break the surface.
Remove the pan from the burner, cover with a lid and keep the eggs in the hot water for about 15 to 20 minutes.
When the time is up, place them in a bowl of ice water until completely cooled, replenishing with ice as needed. Store the hard-cooked eggs unpeeled in the refrigerator and eat them within one week.
For the easiest peeling roll the eggs on the counter under the palm of your hand, cracking them all over. Place them back in the bowl of water and let sit for about 10 minutes. The water will work its way between the shell and egg, loosening it and making it easy to peel.
- 4 oz bleu cheese, softened and crumbled
- 1/4 cup light mayonnaise, preferably Best Foods or Hellman’s brands
- 4 hard cooked eggs
- 4 small, ripe tomatoes, cored and sliced thickly
- 12 slices thick-cut bacon
- 2 (6 to 8 oz) boneless chicken breast halves, or 1 whole boneless chicken breast
- 2 ripe-but-still-slightly firm avocados
- 4 fresh burrito-sized (10 to 12-inch) flour tortillas
- 6 to 8 crisp lettuce leaves, such as romaine, a couple handfuls of arugula, watercress or micro greens, rinsed well and spun dry
- Prepare Sandwich Ingredients: In a small bowl, combine the bleu cheese and mayonnaise, whisking until blended. Cover and set in the refrigerator to let the flavors meld while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.
- If needed, hard cook the eggs (directions here), chill in ice water, peel and finely chop. Set aside.
- In a 12-inch skillet, cook bacon over medium heat until crispy. Transfer to a paper towel-lined baking sheet and pat off excess grease. Remove all but 2 tbsp of the bacon grease from the pan and return to the heat.
- Add the chicken pieces to the skillet and cook on the first side until golden brown, about 6 to 8 minutes. Using tongs, flip them over and cook on the second side until the are fairly firm to the touch or they have reached 160°F. To test the temperature, grasp one of the pieces with tongs and insert the instant-read thermometer at the edge, pushing it into the center. The cooking time will depend on the size of each piece of chicken, about 6 to 8 minutes per side. Alternately, you can grill the chicken on a charcoal or gas grill. Transfer to a platter and set aside.
- When cool enough to handle, slice chicken lengthwise into thin “fingers.” Crumble bacon.
- Cut the avocados lengthwise in half and twist the halves apart. Remove the pit and discard. With a large cooking spoon, scoop the meat of the avocado out of the peels, setting them flat side down on a cutting board. Slice each half lengthwise into 4 strips.
- Place the tortillas in a large freezer-style resealable plastic bag and microwave for about 20 seconds or until warm and pliable.
- For Each Sandwich: Spread about 2 tbsp of the bleu cheese mayonnaise on a tortilla, leaving a 1/2-inch border around the edges. Place 1/4 of the chicken just below the center line of the tortilla, closest to your body. Top with 4 avocado slices, sprinkle with some of the chopped egg, 1 or 2 slices of lettuce and a couple of tomato slices. Add 1/4 of the bacon on top and roll up from the bottom. After one roll, fold the sides in to contain the ingredients and continue rolling.
- Set to the side, seam-side down. Make 3 more wraps with remaining ingredients. Slice each rolled wrap in half and place on a serving platter. Serve warm or at room temperature.
- If you are making these ahead or taking them on a picnic, wrap each in a piece of parchment, folding the ends over and securing them with tape. Wrap in plastic if needed to protect them from other items in your picnic basket.
- 1 head iceberg lettuce
- 1 bunch watercress
- 1 head frisée
- 1 head romaine lettuce
- 2 pints cherry tomatoes, quartered vertically
- 2 whole poached or roasted boneless chicken breasts, skinned and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
- 12 strips best-quality smoky bacon, cooked until crisp, blotted on paper towels, and crumbled
- 6 hard-boiled eggs, chopped
- 1 cup Roquefort or other crumbly blue cheese, coarsely grated
- 2 avocados, cut into 1/2-inch cubes (at the last minute so they don't discolor)
- 1/4 cup finely minced chives
- 1 cup Brown Derby Old-Fashioned French Dressing (see recipe below)
- Finely chop iceberg lettuce, watercress, frisée and romaine lettuce. Place in a large salad bowl.
- Arrange cherry tomatoes, chicken, bacon, eggs, cheese and freshly diced avocados in mounds, attractively spaced, on top of the greens. You may want to divide each ingredient into two smaller mounds, but the final result should be visually pleasing. You can also make lines with each of the ingredients.
- Sprinkle chives over entire platter.
- When ready to eat, present salad at the table, and toss with enough dressing to moisten and flavor. Season with salt and pepper, if needed.
- 1/2 cup red-wine vinegar
- 1/4 tsp sugar
- Juice of 1/2 lemon, freshly squeezed
- 1-1/2 tsp sea salt
- 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
- 1/2 tsp English or Dijon mustard
- 1 small clove garlic, finely minced
- 1-1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
- Shake all ingredients except oil together in a large jar. Wait at least 15 minutes for sugar and salt to dissolve.
- Add oil and shake again. Set aside for at least an hour before using to allow the flavors to marry. Extra dressing can be stored in the refrigerator for at least two weeks.
- Yield: approximately 2 cups