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California on My Mind

August 26, 2009


Act One. Meet Me At the Derby. Our story begins on a night in 1937 near the corner of Hollywood and Vine. A hungry regular at a chic hangout asks the restaurant’s owner to whip up a late-night snack for him. Raiding the fridge, the restaurateur pulls together some diverse ingredients (chicken breast, bacon, tomato, egg, avocado, bleu cheese and lettuce), chops them up, and then serves the resulting salad to his customer. The salad is such a hit that the client returns many more times and requests the exact same salad… and word of mouth does the rest. Soon, the salad is on the menu and the restaurant has a hit on its hands.

The hungry customer the night it all started was Sid Grauman, owner and operator of Grauman’s Chinese Theater; the improvising owner was Robert Howard Cobb, after whom the salad would forever be named; and the restaurant was, of course, The Hollywood Brown Derby. Word of mouth worked so well in this case because the buzz came from Hollywood startlets, assorted film stars, directors and producers.

The Cobb salad screams “California!” with its fresh tomato and avocado combination; it hangs loose with the bacon & chicken, but then lets you know it has a more sophisticated side by including bleu cheese. What if those flavors—that slice of old Hollywood glamour—could be contained within a hamburger bun?

Act Two. Another Bobby Flay Creation… and Ground Chicken. Tonight required a quick, improvisatory meal, dreamed up mid-day and executed quickly. (Yes, I forgot to set out the sirloin steaks I was supposed to prepare. Again.) Nordic Babe mentioned over the weekend that she had been craving the Chicken Cobb Burgers I made a while back—and for once I was actually paying attention! I decided to surprise her by filling her request mere days after it was uttered.

Off to The Fresh Market I went, and when it was my turn at the meat counter I asked, “May I please have a pound and a half of ground chicken?” The answer was a quick and authoritative “No.” Evidently they consider the salmonella risk too great to sell ground chicken, so I had two options: I could substitute ground turkey (in my Cobb burger?) or I could buy Nordic Babe a late anniversary present—the meat grinder attachment for her Kitchen Aid stand mixer. Obviously I chose the latter option and arrived home ready to grind the whole chicken breast I purchased (it provided six patties, FWIW). The process was so simple that I have a feeling this grinder will be called into service more often than I expected.

I served the burgers with homemade french fries. Not long ago my mother gave me my grandmother’s french fry potato cutter from way back when. It’s a Presto slicer, and I have no idea how old it is. All I know is that it provides nice, uniform-sized potato slices that fry up perfectly while connecting me to my family’s culinary past. It easily has the most sentimental value of all my kitchen gadgets. And it can make great cheese cubes, too.


Act Three. The Verdict. The chicken stayed moist and tender, which is the biggest challenge in this dish. I grilled the patties in a covered grill pan on the stovetop and was very happy with the result. Overall, the play of the tangy, acidic vinaigrette against the soothing avocado, the ripe, slightly sweet heirloom tomato slices, and the salty Point Reyes bleu cheese and applewood bacon offered just the right balance without pushing too far toward any one extreme. Surprisingly, The Mooch refused to eat her bacon because it had touched the avocado; she wanted “real bacon” (we finally figured out that she wanted a slice on the side like at breakfast). Foodie Girl only managed to eat a quarter of her burger, but even I have to admit that these burgers are huge when everything is stacked. It was difficult for little mouths to fit around them, but the fries certainly went down much easier (no surprise there). Next time I’ll use more avocado and also put some of the vinaigrette on the bun to moisten it a bit. Other than that, it was a most excellent spur-of-the-moment selection. Took me right back home to the Golden State… 🙂

MUSIC: Deanna Durbin singing “A Serenade to the Stars” in 1938’s Mad About Music... listen here. Why? Because that film (1) starred Sid Grauman as himself, (2) opened in the year the Cobb Salad really took off, and (3) epitomizes the state of movie music in that era. Hooray for Hollywood, indeed.

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