Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Kit's Cobb Salad

A midnight snack turned delicious entree!

As much as I love baking cakes or cooking rich, delicious dinners, every once and a while, I feel a little guilty for not making more food that's health conscious. I know I have readers who are doing their best to eat healthier, and since this started off as an attempt to force myself to learn how to cook, I'd like to be able to get more experience making food that fits our modern understanding of what makes a healthy, well rounded diet, and not recipes from an era that assumes you're going to be out plowing fields all day and thus need the extra calories. One of the simplest solutions to this would be to find some interesting salads to make right?

Well, sort of.

Unfortunately, as I've discovered, our idea of what actually makes a salad has changed a lot over the years. Generally speaking, Americans (and parts of Europe, I won't speak for the rest for the world because I'm not as familiar with their foodways) haven't really had a great history of preparing vegetables in a way that's actually good for you. We've boiled them until we basically stripped the nutrients, slathered them in honey and brown sugar, and smothered them under thick sauces, or lots and lots of anchovys. Our definition of salad once (and still does, in some communities!) included genuinely sugary gelatin molds on top of a measly leaf of lettuce! That's not exactly what I was looking for, guys!

As far as I can tell - based on my admittedly cursory research, I won't pretend to be a salad historian here - one of the first really modern dinner salads that we're still eating today dates back to a midnight snack first enjoyed in 1937, and has been showing up on people's tables almost ever since. Where did I find out about the history of the Cobb salad?

A Disney Parks cookbook! Well, technically I first found out about the history of the salad from The American Century Cookbook, but their source for the recipe and the origin behind it? Was credited to the historians working at Disney.

In 1926, the first of what would become a chain of restaurants called the Brown Derby was opened in Los Angeles, California. A second restaurant was opened in Hollywood in 1929, and hosted many movie stars and big shots, including Clark Gable. The restaurant is featured in the "Mickey and the Beanstalk" segment of Disney's Fun and Fancy Free. The original building was mostly destroyed in a fire, and several of the other early 20th century restaurants are either gone entirely or have been converted to other uses, but the name lives on with a company in Ohio that manages restaurants using the Brown Derby name. In the Disney theme park formerly known as MGM Studios, currently known as Hollywood Studios, a replica of the original Hollywood restaurant was built in 1987 and has hosted guests ever since.

Okay Gwen, you're likely saying, where are we going with this? I'm getting there, I swear.

Back in 1937 - well before Disney World opened its doors - Bob Cobb (the owner of the Hollywood Brown Derby) and Sid Grauman (a theater magnate) were roaming through the kitchen looking for a midnight snack. Grauman had just had dental work done and couldn't really chew, so Cobb took a bunch of random ingredients, chopped them up fine enough for his friend's sensitive mouth, and tossed them into a salad. Grauman liked the spontaneous creation so much, he ordered it again the next day! And ever since then, we've been able to enjoy Cobb salad.

Or so the story goes.

Disney offers the original recipe on their menu, and according to the cookbook is their most popular entree at the Brown Derby! Despite going to Disney World fairly often and eating at the Brown Derby before, I can't say I've ever eaten their Cobb salad. Next time I go, I might have to!

Like most entree salads, this requires a lot of prep and assembly. You need one cup of iceberg lettuce, one cup of chopped chicory leaves, and one cup of watercress, all of which should be washed and dried before you toss it in with the rest of the ingredients. You also need a pound of poached turkey (although you can use chicken if you're not a fan of turkey!), two medium sized seeded tomatoes, one avocado, a half cup of crumbled blue cheese, about six strips of bacon that have been crumbled into bits, and three chopped hard boiled eggs. Here's what my assembly station looked like once I had all my singular ingredients ready to go:

Technically you're supposed to do this in a bowl, but we decided the Mickey mouse tray would look more interesting in pictures... even though you can't see Mickey at all.

All your chopped ingredients get lined up separately on top of your greens, creating a very visually interesting plate.

You then add two tablespoons of chopped chives in two diagonal lines across the rest of the ingredients.

I've definitely seen Cobb salad served this way at restaurants before, and I've even seen it with none of the leafy greens, just the fun chopped up stuff lined out on a plate for you, which seems more fun than it is. You kind of need the lettuce to really help turn this from a fun appetizer to a legitimate dinner salad! Still, doesn't stop people from enjoying some tasty bites of turkey and bacon.

But technically, this is not supposed to be your last stop. The cookbook also includes a recipe for the official salad dressing, which has a surprising amount of ingredients. You take two tablespoons each of water and red wine vinegar, one tablespoon of lemon juice, a half teaspoon each of Worcestershire sauce, salt and minced garlic, a quarter teaspoon of sugar, an eighth of a teaspoon each of black pepper and dry mustard, mix it with a third of a cup of vegetable oil and then slowly add two tablespoons of olive oil. Because this is a lot of oil and water based ingredients, you'll need to mix it up nicely before you pour it over your salad.

Here's my not very well mixed at all dressing:

Now, technically you're supposed to serve this in radicchio cups with sprigs of watercress on top for garnish, but I was not getting that fancy for a Sunday night dinner. I just tossed my salad with the dressing in a bowl and served it on normal plates.

Cobb salad is always an interesting, tasty meal. Because it has so many ingredients, there's a lot going on texture and flavor wise, so no two bites are exactly the same. They all actually compliment each other very well too, and while I'm not personally a fan of blue cheese, it and the bacon add a nice saltiness to a salad which might otherwise be a little bland, even with the help of the dressing. One thing that sort of surprises me about it is how relatively simple it is, and how normal the ingredients are for a favorite of old Hollywood. Maybe that's one of the reasons it's had such a wide appeal for so long - it's not something that seems like it came out of a swanky Hollywood restaurant that can only be enjoyed by people making more money than you'll ever see in your life.

My only complaint is that it did take some time to assemble, if only because poaching your turkey, boiling your eggs, cooking your bacon and chopping up your vegetables takes a while to prepare. I was glad this wasn't something I was making for a large crowd on a time table! But I would happily make it again. It was filling, tasty, and the ingredients are (with the exception of the bacon...) good for you. This is one historical dinner your Weight Watchers group won't be shocked you indulged in!
So whether you're looking for a midnight snack or a really yummy main course, might as well give this a try! It's definitely a lot better for you and better tasting than many other historical salads.

Plus, it's fun to eat like a movie star!


  1. This was delicious. Feel free to make it again, any time!

    1. I think we might have to, it was so good! :D