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Classic salads share California pedigree

Thursday, August 01, 2002

By Marlene Parrish

California gave us the Gold Rush, Esalen and John Wayne. It gave us Chez Panisse, Napa Valley chardonnay and Wolfgang Puck.

(Illustration by Stacy Innerst, Post-Gazette)

It has also given us superb salads. Think Caesar, Cobb and Green Goddess. These Western salads came into their own in the 1920s, particularly in Southern California. Composed salads all, they are set pieces with formulas that can be tinkered with but not tampered with, lest their unique flavor magic be compromised.

In our weight- and nutrition-conscious culture, these salads have never had so much appeal -- whether at lunch or dinner, in restaurant or at home.

The people, places and events of their creation are now legendary.

Caesar Salad -- On the Fourth of July, we celebrated the birth of the nation. In 1924, the Fourth was also the birth of the Caesar Salad. The first one was created at Caesar's Palace in Tijuana, Mexico, just across the border from San Diego. The restaurant's owner, Italian-born Caesar Cardini, was running short of ingredients for entrees on that holiday weekend. Improvising with what was on hand, he tossed together romaine leaves, garlic, olive oil, lemon juice, a raw egg, Worcestershire (anchovies were a later addition), sourdough croutons and Parmesan cheese, all served as a main course. The romaine leaves were left whole and arranged on the plate with the intention that they were to be eaten with the fingers.

The salad was an instant hit with the many Hollywood celebrities who often crossed the border to dine at Cardini's. Migrating north, Caesar salad, as it was now known, became a featured dish at popular watering holes in Los Angeles.

Over the years, the salad was fine-tuned. The romaine was torn into smaller bite-sized pieces and anchovies were added. (Their faint flavor in the original recipe came from their inclusion in the Worcestershire.) The original Caesar has also morphed into versions that include everything from grilled chicken to fried oysters.

The raw egg is essential for the velvety dressing and to give a lustrous coating to the greens, but to alleviate today's concerns about bacteria, pasteurized egg is sometimes used, or none at all. The original dressing is tossed so that each ingredient gives a separate flavor pow! on the tongue. But chefs who choose to take an easier way out buzz the ingredients in a blender to emulsify the components into a creamy dressing. Much less interesting.

The Caesar salad was once voted by the International Society of Epicures in Paris as the "greatest recipe to originate from the Americans in 50 years."

Cobb Salad. This is another legacy of the 1920s in California. It was created at Hollywood's Brown Derby restaurant, a conspicuous eatery with a roof shaped like a Gulliver-sized domed hat with a sign on top that said, "Eat in the Hat."

Legend has it that late one night, Brown Derby GM Bob Cobb wandered into the kitchen looking for something to quell his hunger. Choosing from the day's leftovers, he created a dish that would become the restaurant's signature. It was a chopped salad of lettuce, watercress, celery, tomato, avocado, bacon, chicken, hard-cooked egg, chives and Roquefort cheese topped with French dressing. Cobb's pals and habitues were soon hooked, and they began to request it. The salad became an official menu item in 1929. Since then, the name Cobb has become generic for every sort of chopped salad.

The Cobb is dramatic-looking when presented on a platter with the ingredients arranged separately in rows or wedges before being dressed and tossed.

Green Goddess Salad. This was created at San Francisco's Palace Hotel (now the Sheraton-Palace) in 1923. Well-known British actor George Arliss starred in William Archer's play, "The Green Goddess." To celebrate the play's success and honor the actor, then-chef Philip Reomer created a special composed salad for a dinner party.

The chef's ingredients were as grand as the guests. Plates were dressed with iceberg and other lettuces. He topped artichoke bottoms with a bounty of shrimp. Cherry tomatoes added color and shape around the perimeter. The plate was liberally doused with Green Goddess dressing, a mayonnaise blended with spinach leaves, parsley, green whiffy herbs (tarragon and chervil, both contributing a subtle licorice flavor), anchovies and shallot.

Oh, the play? The story line concerns three English persons whose plane has crashed in the mountains near India. They are taken hostage by the Rajah, who just happens to speak perfect English and has a butler. The Rajah's devout subjects believe that "the Green Goddess" has sent the English to take the place of three of their own who are about to be executed. The action includes lust, secrecy and murder, and of course, the English eventually prevail.

This reviewer says: The play is forgettable but the salad is fabulous.

Taco Salad. Tacos came north to California with Mexican immigrants. The salad format wasn't so much of a creative invention as a logical happening. It's not much of a leap from a hand-held taco "sandwich" to a taco salad containing all the ingredients in a plated format. Everything is included: crunchy golden corn tortillas, beef, chili and other spices, lettuce, Cheddar cheese, guacamole, sour cream and salsa. Today the taco salad is as popular in the East as it is in the West.

Chinese Chicken Salad. It's a stretch, but California can lay claim to this classic, too. Certainly there were more Chinese restaurants out West than in the rest of the States for years, thanks to immigration and work opportunities. Don't you suppose that a thrifty restaurateur (sometime in the 1950s when this "new" salad started to appear on Western menus) simply took last night's cooked chicken, chopped it, added noodles, nuts and crunchy cabbage and announced the invention of the Chinese Chicken Salad? I do.

Complicated versions exist, but to serve six persons, do this:

In a large bowl, mix 1 teaspoon Chinese "5 Spice" powder and 1/2 cup peanut or olive oil. Add the shredded meat from a rotisserie-roasted chicken and let stand a while. Then add 2 tablespoons dry mustard mixed with 3 tablespoons water along with 1 1/2 teaspoons roasted sesame oil and mix well. Add 1 cup chopped cilantro or parsley, 1 cup chopped scallions, 3 cups shredded lettuce (or cabbage), 1 1/2 cups dry-roasted peanuts or cashews and 1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds. If you have a can of water chestnuts around, slice and add them.

Toss everything, correct seasoning with kosher salt and freshly ground pepper and serve. Pass a bowl of crispy Chinese noodles as topping.

Chef's Salad. This one is anonymous. Credit for this American mainstay should go to Amana, Kelvinator and Sears, the refrigerators that store our leftovers until they scream Uncle and we have to eat 'em or pitch 'em.

Arrange the following on a large, deep platter: a bed of shredded iceberg lettuce (one head), 12 trimmed and sliced radishes, 2 stalks of julienned celery, 4 tomatoes cut into wedges, 3/4 cup Swiss cheese in strips, 1 cup ham (or tongue, if you can get it) in strips, 1 cup chicken or turkey in strips, 4 quartered hard-cooked eggs. Sprinkle everything lightly with kosher salt and freshly ground pepper. Dress the salad with a liberal dousing of a creamy dressing -- Ranch is good, or creamy Italian vinaigrette. Originally, the salad was sauced with Russian dressing -- half mayonnaise, half chili sauce with minced celery and green and red pepper for crunch. This makes enough for 4 servings.

Let's talk

We hate to nag, but you do know how to choose and care for greens, right? Buy only fresh-looking salad greens. If the romaine looks wilted, go for the red leaf lettuce. If you are buying pre-cut packaged greens, look for an advanced use-by date.

Remember the three Cs. Greens must be Clean, Crisp and Cold. And Dry. To rinse and crisp salad greens, immerse in water and swish gently to remove any grit, then drain and blot with paper towels or spin dry. Wrap in paper towels or a clean tea towel and enclose in a plastic bag. Chill until crisp, at least 30 minutes or up to 1 day.

Many composed recipes call for shredded lettuce. This is especially important in taco salads where you are looking for fine, lacy lettuce, not hunks.

To cut fine shreds (called chiffonade), stack long leaves such as romaine, a few leaves at a time, roll lengthwise into a cylinder, and slice thinly crosswise. To shred iceberg lettuce, first cut the head in half through the core, then cut out and discard core. Cut each half in half again lengthwise, then place each quarter on one cut side and slice thinly lengthwise from the other cut side. Got that?

When the salad is the star, not a side dish, it needs protein and punch. Protein delivers staying power. Warm grilled chicken or beef strips add delicious flavor. Be sure to allow their juices to mingle with the salad dressing. Chopped hard-cooked eggs and cubed leftover chicken, ham and cheese are good, too. Add herbs, garlic, radishes, onions and such for punch and crunch.

Finally, a word about tossing ordinary everyday salads. Instead of glopping bought salad dressing over the ingredients and tossing in one fell swoop, try building the salad this way. Have the chilled greens in the main bowl and all of the add-ins in a separate smaller bowl. Add vinaigrette dressing to the greens and toss while sprinkling with a bit of kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. When all the leaves are coated, taste and adjust seasoning. Now add vinaigrette dressing to the heavier add-ins and toss to coat. Combine them in the big bowl and toss just to rearrange, adding a little fresh lemon juice to brighten the flavor.

Salad dinners have their problems. Like kids, for instance. Let's say you are making a warm-weather meal for the family. There's a great big salad with hard-cooked eggs, cheeses and meats padding the lettuces, sliced veggies and herbs. A big basket of breads is on the table, too.

Surely everyone will find something in the bowl to like. If a sandwich is more appealing to one of the smaller members of the family, pick out what she likes and tuck them into the bread. It's still a salad and bread deal, just rearranged.

Finally, there are bound to be leftovers from time to time. Wilted salad can be a sorry-looking dish the next day. But chef Charlie Palmer of Aureole restaurant pulls this trick on his growing family at home. He says, throw the remains of salad into a saucepan. Add a cup of water (or less, depending how much salad is left), and cook it for 5 minutes. Puree the now-soup in a blender. Stir some unflavored yogurt into the puree and chill it for a light cold lunch. Top-dress with chopped herbs.

A good salad can go a long way.

Marlene Parrish is a Mount Washington-based free-lance food writer.

Related Recipes:

California Caesar Salad
Classic Brown Derby Cobb Salad
Taco Salad With Tortilla Whiskers
Green Goddess Dressing

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