On a warm summer night, a substantial salad seems like the perfect compromise between making a big meal and eating light. I used to worry that a salad might not be dinner-ish enough for some of the heartier eaters in my extended family, but I’ve realized that if you start with something familiar—a classic like a Caesar, a Cobb, or a Niçoise—and give it a fresh update and a pretty presentation, guests are not only satisfied but impressed.
One of the good things about these salads is that you can prepare some of the ingredients ahead, like making the dressings and washing the greens. Other make-ahead elements include flavor-boosters like toasted pine nuts (in the Cobb) and grilled potatoes (in the Niçoise).
Once you’ve prepared your ingredients and are ready to put the salads together, dress each component separately. This way, you have more control and can be sure that everything is uniformly dressed. Then, take a cue from a classic composed salad and artfully arrange the ingredients on individual plates, distributing them equally. You’ll be amazed at how impressive your salads will look—and taste.
The Stories Behind the Salads
The origins—and the traditional ingredients—of these three classic salads are heavily debated. At the risk of fanning the flames of controversy, these are the histories that make the most sense to me.
Caesar Cardini, a chef in Tijuana, Mexico, invented the Caesar Salad at his restaurant in the 1920s. He apparently had a deft hand with leftovers, as he used some Parmigiano cheese, garlic, olive oil, coddled eggs, and Worcestershire sauce to dress up romaine one night when he was running out of food at his popular south-of-the-border spot. He dressed the leaves tableside and garnished the salad with croutons.
Not to be outdone in the leftover department, Bob Cobb, manager of Los Angeles’ Brown Derby restaurant during the 1930s, invented his own salad late one night in the kitchen after service. He chopped up lettuce (watercress, too), bacon, tomatoes, avocados, and chicken and tossed it with some blue cheese and a vinaigrette. Thus the Cobb Salad was born.
No one chef could lay claim to the creation of the Salade Niçoise, which traditionally includes tuna, potatoes, green beans, and tomatoes. It gets its character from the typically bold Provençal ingredients like garlic, olives, capers and anchovies used by cooks in the city of Nice, France.
Salad Smarts: Five easy ways to build a better salad
Discard damaged or coarse outer lettuce leaves or save them for something else.
Wash greens well (I use a big bowl and do two or three soaks, lifting the leaves up each time so that grit settles to the bottom) and spin-dry them. Store the leaves delicately packed into large zip-top bags lined with paper towels. Most greens will keep for several days like this.
Don’t overdress your salad or it’ll be soggy. You can always add more dressing, but you can’t take it away.
Toss with a light hand. Many of the ingredients in the salads here are delicate.
Season your greens with a little salt and pepper as you toss them with dressing. Even though the dressing is already seasoned, a little more salt and pepper at this point makes a huge flavor difference.