It's time to wow 'em with salad

There are plenty of recipes knocking around these days. But the good ones — the classics — are relatively rare.

So when a real "clip-and-save" comes along, it's a good idea to take notice. In the salad genre, there are several such keepers, and today I'm sharing three of them — delicious salad concoctions that have weathered the storms of nouvelle and California cuisines and still wow 'em at the dinner table.

Interestingly enough, when I set out to collect these recipes, along with as much history about each one's creation as possible, I encountered the work of another food writer, Jean Anderson, who shared her passion for time-honored recipes in "The American Century Cookbook." Subtitled "The Most Popular Recipes of the 20th Century," this fine collection is an exploration and celebration of the diversity of our nation's cuisine.

In the salad section of Anderson's book, I discovered that her opinions of what makes a classic meshed with mine. Every one of my favorites was in this chapter.

On the theme of salads, Anderson has some solid opinions and dandy tidbits. They certainly existed before the 20th century, she said. (Case in point: The Waldorf salad of apples, celery and mayonnaise was invented by Waldorf-Astoria Hotel maitre d' Oscar Tschirky in 1893.) But the 1900s popularized the salad, since most earlier concoctions were looked upon merely as repositories for leftovers, rather than an end unto themselves.

Anderson made an interesting observation on how molded salads worked their way into everyday usage thanks to the folks at Jell-O, as well as a certain Mr. Knox and his granulated gelatin. Before these two modern conveniences hit the market, molded wonders like tomato aspic obtained their shape first from homemade calf's foot jelly and, later, from sheet gelatin.

She also reported that green salads of the early 1900s generally meant a wedge of iceberg doused with Russian or Thousand Island dressing. And yet, as early as 1939, Anderson added, author Irma Rombauer was promoting the importance of incorporating raw vegetables and fruits in our everyday diet. And it was Rombauer, said Anderson, "who suggested rubbing a salad bowl with garlic and filling it with crisp, cold greens, such as romaine, endive and watercress."

As Anderson observed, the 20th century did indeed give us some wonderful, all-star classics: Caesar salad, Cobb salad, chef's salad, celery Victor, raw spinach salad with hot bacon dressing, three-bean salad, overnight layered salad, crab Louis and tuna salad.

Here are three of my favorites — celery Victor, Cobb salad and raw spinach salad with hot bacon dressing.

The first is probably one of the lesser-known classics among home cooks but one of my favorites since first encountering a variation of it during my test-kitchen days in San Francisco. As far as I know (and Anderson doesn't seem to have much more information than me), celery Victor may or may not have been created by San Francisco Chef Victor Hirtzler of the St. Francis Hotel in the early 1900s. At the very least, the recipe was named after him and appears in Hirtzler's "Hotel St. Francis Cookbook," published in 1919. Use it as a first-course salad for a special dinner, and you won't be sorry.

More well-known, the Cobb salad is the 1936 creation of Robert Cobb, president of a restaurant group that owned the Hollywood Brown Derby. He put together a salad for pal Sid Grauman (of Grauman's Chinese Theater) from restaurant leftovers that included good-quality blue cheese, perfectly seasoned and poached chicken, avocado, bacon, hard-cooked eggs, herbs, tomatoes and a variety of salad greens. Cobb finely diced the ingredients and arranged them attractively on top of the greens. Before serving, he tossed it all together with a fine vinaigrette.

Variations of Cobb salad abound. But in my mind, the successful alterations are strictly architectural — nobody has fiddled with the ingredients and come up with an improvement. My favorite spin-off was created in a San Francisco restaurant, MacArthur Park, back in the early 1970s. Individual salads were build 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.

Anderson believes raw spinach salad with hot bacon dressing might have sprung from a recipe for Dandelion Salad, German Fashion, which was published in 1902 in "Mrs. Rorer's New Cookbook," by Sarah Tyson Rorer of Philadelphia. However, based on Anderson's extensive research, it seems to have taken several decades for cooks to make the leap from dandelions to raw spinach and from a cold bacon dressing to a hot one. Here is Anderson's own recipe, which she admits is a little spicier than some of the original classics she encountered during her research.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, cookbook author and artist. Readers can contact her by e-mail at

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