August arrived in a glorious blaze of sunshine and … no hang on, what am I saying?
Of course it didn’t. In fact, I think it’s rained every day so far this month.
It has been, frankly, a pretty dismal summer so far, and I gaze out over the Colne Valley and feel sympathy for the families with children, desperate for some decent weather to get the kids out of the house and getting active.
I’m sure it rained during the summers when I was a little boy, but all I can remember is deep blue skies, roasting heat and hosepipe bans.
Endless hot days of adventure and fun.
Now it’s all flood warnings, anoraks, and cancelled festivals. And people still deny climate change, the deluded fools.
Well, beggar the weather, I don’t care. I’m making a salad. It’s one of the world’s great classics, and one I’ve never made before, surprisingly.
Today it’s the Cobb Salad. The most reliable origin story of the Cobb is that it was created by the chef at the celebrated Brown Derby restaurant in Hollywood, California, and named after the larger-than- life owner, Robert H Cobb.
The restaurant, actually shaped like the eponymous man’s hat, was very much the place to be seen in the 1930s and 40s, all the way up to the 1970s, and you’d likely find yourself tucking into a fresh Cobb next to Clark Gable or Dean Martin.
It’s said that the salad was hastily knocked up – and it’s remarkable how many of the modern classics seem to have come about in the same ‘make do’ manner – for the owner of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre (the famous one on Hollywood Boulevard’s ‘Walk Of Fame’, where all the brass stars line the pavement), who, after having had extensive dental work, was unable to chew with any force.
So, a fridge full of softer ingredients came together, and was eventually finessed into the Cobb salad we see in diners across the US to this day.
It’s not travelled much, hence my inaugural attempt at making one for myself, but you’ll discover that it has a lot going for it.
The lettuces provide a firm, crunchy base, and watercress a peppery punch.
Tomatoes add the sunshine, and avocados their signature creaminess.
The cheese and bacon and stronger, salty flavours, and the roast chicken breast rounds things off nicely, helped by the twang of freshly-snipped chives and the fresh garlic-y dressing.
Every mouthful is an explosion of flavours, textures and temperatures.
It’s meaty, salty, creamy, crunchy and sharp all at once, and it’s a wonderful salad to knock up for a quick supper or light lunch.
I can’t guarantee a film star as your dinner companion, but the real celebrity here is on the plate; a copper-bottomed classic.
For the dressing:
180ml sunflower oil
60ml extra-virgin olive oil
60ml red wine vinegar
1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
1 tsp Colman’s English mustard powder
½ tsp Worcestershire sauce
¼ tsp unrefined golden caster sugar
1 large clove of garlic
Maldon salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
For the salad:
1 head iceberg lettuce
1 head romaine lettuce
A handful of watercress
100g Roquefort or soft blue cheese
12 rashers unsmoked streaky bacon
6 large ripe plum tomatoes
2 corn-fed chicken breasts, skin on
2 ripe avocados
Maldon salt and freshly ground black
pepper, to taste
A small bunch of chives
First, make the dressing: Mince or finely chop the garlic into a bowl and whisk in the lemon juice and Worcestershire sauce along with the sugar and a pinch of salt and pepper.
Continue whisking, adding the vinegar and then the two oils, bringing the mixture together into a good, stable emulsion.
Whizzing in a blender is also a good way of ensuring the dressing doesn’t split too quickly. Season with a little pepper and set aside.
Now for the salad elements: Heat a pan of water. Score a shallow cross on the base of each of the tomatoes, and when the water is boiling, plunge them into the pan for 30-45 seconds, until the skin starts to release.
Quickly drain the pan and dump the tomatoes into plenty of ice-cold water. Leave until cool, then drain and pat dry.
Remove the skins and discard. Carefully quarter the tomatoes lengthwise and remove the seeds. Dice the remaining flesh and set this to one side.
Line a baking tray with foil and heat the oven to 200ºC / Gas 6.
Lay out the strips of streaky bacon and bake for 15-20 minutes, or until the bacon is evenly crisp and sizzling.
Chop the bacon into small shards and set to one side.
In a pan with a little olive oil, quickly sear the skin side of the chicken breasts, season, then roast in the oven for 20-25 minutes, until cooked through.
As the chicken cooks, hand-tear the iceberg and romaine lettuces into manageable pieces, and peel and dice the avocados. Crumble the cheese by hand.
To assemble the salad, fill a large bowl with the lettuces, watercress and avocado dice.
Add the crumbled cheese and the tomato flesh, along with the bacon shards.
Drizzle over as much of the dressing as you feel necessary and gently toss all of the ingredients together.
Top each portion with a few chunks of roast chicken, and sprinkle with some freshly-snipped chives.