Turn side salads into main dishes

When flavor and texture combinations are perfect, classics are born.

In 1936, Robert Cobb, president of a restaurant group that owned the Hollywood Brown Derby, put together a salad from restaurant leftovers for pal Sid Grauman (of Grauman's Chinese Theater).

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Find Jan's recipes for Classic Cobb Salad With a Twist and Grilled Chicken Salad With Jalapeno Dressing in our online Recipe Box, a searchable database of more than 3,700 dishes, at www.mailtribune.com/recipes.

According to legend, the pickings were slim that night, and yet Cobb assembled an interesting creation with items lurking in the restaurant's refrigerator: good-quality blue cheese, perfectly seasoned and poached chicken, avocado, bacon, hard-cooked eggs, tomatoes and a variety of salad greens and fresh herbs. He gave everything a fine dice and, then for presentation, arranged those ingredients in tight but separate formation, greens on the bottom. At the table, after his guest got to appreciate the colorful array, Cobb tossed it all together with a fine vinaigrette.

More than 75 years later, variations abound. But in my mind, the successful alterations are strictly architectural — nobody has fiddled with the ingredients and come up with an improvement.

In fact, my favorite spinoff was created in a San Francisco restaurant, MacArthur Park, back in the early 1970s. Individual salads were built up, layer by delectable layer, in porcelain souffle bowls and crowned with Roquefort dressing. The result was a delightful stratification of colors and flavors, but not much real difference after all was said and, uh, crunched.

As Cobb proved, side salads become main dishes in so many simple ways. Add meats, cheeses and eggs, of course, or beans and grains. Roasted vegetables, still warm and caramelized from the oven, draped over some tender salad greens and sprinkled with some Oregon blue is a jazzy maneuver, too.

And because it's time to bring the new-crop hazelnut into the kitchen, consider them a part of the formula, as well. I've always maintained that the hazelnut's crunchy-toasty-sweet-yet-smoky character partners beautifully with such things as bacon, blue cheese, chicken, avocado and tomato.

Wait a minute, that's sounding an awful lot like a Cobb Salad. Well what do you know?

Or for a speedy beef salad, season and cook skirt steak to desired doneness. Whisk together 1/4 cup red-wine vinegar, 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard, 1/4 teaspoon salt and freshly ground black pepper, a pinch of sugar and 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil. Toss vinaigrette with salad greens, sliced steak, a healthy crumbling of blue cheese and a handful of roasted and coarsely chopped hazelnuts.

Indeed, hazelnuts bring an extra depth of flavor to everything in contact with them. Give it a try! It's simple, and it works. When I'm garnishing main-dish salads with hazelnuts, I like them to be extravagantly varied in size, the way they become when crushed gently with the handle of a chef's knife.

The next few weeks — when we're easing away from the salad days of summer and preparing our appetites for the soul-warming stews of winter — is the perfect time to have it both ways.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist and author of "Oregon Hazelnut Country: the Food, the Drink, the Spirit" and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at janrd@proaxis.com or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.

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