Welcome to the Department of Salad #12: Cobb Salads!

Waste Not, Want Not. A Stitch in Time Saves Nine. Etcetera.

CHEF SALAD: Lindsay-Jean Hard

BACK WHEN I WAS LIVING in NYC, a new friend who is Catholic asked me if I was Catholic. (No.) Well, you must be Jewish, then, she insisted.  (No, but my great-grandfather was.) She was surprised. Then how come you’re so guilty? she asked.

It would take a million years to explain that to anyone, but I’m excited to announce that I very recently purchased a cookbook that I believe is going to alleviate my guilt—in the kitchen, at least.

In my life as a somewhat hyperactive home cook (and a former restaurant prep cook), I have worried obsessively about two things: wasting food and wasting paper towels. 

I have made some peace with the paper towel thing, which stems partly from my fear of germs. (I wash my hands about 35,000 times just while I’m waiting for butter to melt in a pan.)  And partly from the fact that while I may use my hands for tasks that usually involve kitchen tools I’d rather die than go on to my next task with wet hands. I will essentially wipe them on anything, including your shirt, to avoid wet hands. We all have issues. Whatever.  

So I became a paper towel addict. I would wake up in the morning with paper towels all around me, on the floor in the kitchen, in the pockets of coats and bathrobes and under the seat of my car and in every room of my house, scattered around unconsciously, my false talismans of safety. 

Just re-use them, I told myself. But they might be contaminated, I replied to myself. (With what? I wasn’t really sure. It's not like I was cooking blowfish).

I finally went to the hardware store and bought a giant stack of ugly gray microfiber towels meant for industrial cleaning and I’ve been using them for several years. The Glorious Roll will always beckon to me, but these awful gray things have been a good solution. I have even started using them as washcloths and am convinced I’ve never been so exfoliated. 

Wasting food, however, haunts me still, and even more so now, with so many food-insecure people in America, and in the world.  

I’ve tried everything, but I’m just never going to be one of those super-organized cooks who plans with holy precision, completely minimizing the occurrence of liquified cucumbers in the crisper and moldy cheese everywhere else. I joined one of those meal kit delivery subscriptions thinking it would be fun and reduce waste. Instead, it filled my fridge with tiny packets of haloumi and lemongrass and 2-tablespoon containers of crème fraiche and packages of exactly 3 shiitake mushrooms or 8 Kalamata olives and my soul with more guilt than ever before.  Here is my sociopathically overstuffed fridge from that mad time.

Which brings me to the point of all of this: the wonderful Lindsay-Jean Hard, who is the marketer at the fabulous Zingerman’s Bakehouse in Ann Arbor. I know her from her days as a writer and editor at Food52, where she wrote, among many other things, a column that turned into Cooking with Scraps: Turn Your Peels, Cores, Rinds, and Stems into Delicious Meals, which is the book I mentioned before I started talking about myself and how guilty I feel all the damn time. To me, it’s a beautiful take on the idea of Nose to Tail cooking—but without all the killing. 

Hard, who has a master’s degree in urban planning from the University of Michigan, is a longtime vegetarian and sustainability/anti-waste freak. As a kid, she wrote to the local Subway sandwich shop to make sure their tuna was dolphin-safe. “Which is hilarious, looking back—that I was worried about the dolphins and not the tuna,” she says. Years ago, at one of her first jobs, she created recycling bins for the plastics not yet recycled in Ann Arbor and would tote all of them clear to the other side of The Mitten to her parents’ house in Grand Rapids, where those particular plastics were being recycled. 

Hard became a vegetarian partly because she realized she could never kill any animal that she had been eating.  And she couldn’t reconcile that. “People who raise their own animals and kill them and eat them: that makes perfect sense to me. You have a respect for the animal and you’re honoring it,” she says. 

 “But a piece of vegetarianism for me has always been the impact on the planet,” Hard adds.

One of the most famous recipes in her book (which includes such dishes as charred asparagus-end pesto, Danish pancakes with apple-core syrup, and spicy carrot-top kimchi) is the banana peel cake with brown sugar frosting.  You use the entire banana, peel and all, a technique that Zingerman’s now uses in their banana bread. Which is pretty remarkable when you think about how many banana peels get discarded in a country that already wastes over a third of its food— an issue that impacts national food security, the environment, and our economy.

Hard is realistic. Obviously, the world has a lot of work to do in this area of the food system. “I definitely hope that people like the recipes and cook them. But what I really hope is that the book can be a jumping-off point,” she says. Meaning for the rest of us, as a step toward discovering and using so much food that is right in front of us—but that we often overlook and discard

Anyway, here’s Hard in her own words, with a salad that eases my guilt. When I made it, I used only what I had in my fridge, leftovers from so many other salads, some of which needed to be eaten ASAP, if you know what I mean.—Emily

Dream Salad: A Vegetarian’s Antidote to the Sad House Salad

by Lindsay-Jean Hard

“I love food. All-caps. L-O-V-E, love food. Thinking about it, writing about it, cooking, sharing, eating it. One of my proudest moments as a parent? When my9-year-old daughter asked me what we were having for dinner recently—while we were still making breakfast together

But I’m a vegetarian. And you want to know my biggest vegetarian-related bummer? Nope, it’s not being constantly asked where I “get my protein.” It’s going out to eat (when we are not in the middle of a global pandemic, of course) and finding there’s nothing meatless on the menu. Or—somehow even more depressing—that the only option is the Sad House Salad.

I also love restaurants. I can order dishes with 36 different ingredients that I would never in a million years have the bandwidth to fuss with at home. I get excited about the possibility of being surprised and delighted by other people’s culinary creations. But no one is ever surprised or delighted by the Sad House Salad. 

Listen, this is not a knock on all House Salads. Some restaurants have good ones. The Sad House Salad (SHS) is a particular breed that most often incorporates square pieces of iceberg lettuce (from a bag), orange cheese shreds coated in cornstarch (from a bag), a couple of wan slices of a mealy, out-of-season Roma tomato, and croutons (from a box). I don’t mean to disrespect these packaged goods. They make cooking more convenient, and they each have a time and a place—but all together in one dish is not it. 

Thanks to the sheer volume of Sad House Salads I’ve consumed in my 14-plus years as a vegetarian, my dream salads bear no relation to the SHS at all. 

Instead, they are light on the greens, heavy on the other stuff (maybe even entirely greens-free)—with one exception: The Cobb Salad. Cobbs need a healthy base of sturdy leaves to bolster the abundance of toppings. Even a mediocre Cobb salad is pretty good to me (unless they forget to hold the bacon), but the best Cobb salad I’ve ever had was at a spot called Mercury Dining Room and Rail in Minneapolis, Minnesota. It has some of the usual suspects (hello egg and avocado) and some not-so-usual (fresh corn, crispy fried onions, and sunflower seeds), but what really set this stunner apart was revealed when I desperately enthusiastically emailed professing my love for this salad and begged politely requested the secret to the dressing magic.

I was convinced it had to be a secret. I’ve had plenty of salads with tasty toppings—something else was setting this stunner apart. So I felt a slightly smug sense of satisfaction when the restaurant’s general manager, Jason Gillquist, revealed that the allure was in fact dressing-related: they use not one, but two dressings: an herb vinaigrette and ranch dressing. The salad comes with the greens already dressed with the vinaigrette and the ranch is served in a little pitcher on the side for drizzling. 

That vinaigrette serves multiple purposes—it helps cut some of the salad’s richness, but it also makes the crisp, leafy greens an ingredient in their own right, rather than merely a bed for the more interesting components. Gillquist coyly noted that they don’t share exact recipes, but he kindly shared the ingredients for their vinaigrette and their oil-to-vinegar ratio (4:3), my take on that is below. I adore ranch dressing and will consume any variation of it, but if I’m making my own, I often start with Tara O’Brady’s Basil Buttermilk Ranch and tweak as needed with what I have on hand.

*RECIPE: Lindsay-Jean Hard’s Wintery Take on a Cobb

  • Romaine, maybe mixed with other greens, tossed with Herb Vinaigrette before building salad with remaining ingredients

  • Hard-boiled eggs 

  • Chunks/crumbles of feta/goat cheese

  • Roasted root vegetables

  • Something crunchy: seeds/croutons/savory granola

  • Other items that sing to you/beg to be cleared out of the fridge

Herb Vinaigrette

  • 3 tablespoons red wine vinegar

  • 1/4 cup olive oil (they use canola, you do you)

  • 1/4 teaspoon dried oregano 

  • 1/8 teaspoon dried thyme

  • 1 teaspoon minced fresh basil

  • 1 teaspoon finely grated Parmesan

  • 1/8 teaspoon kosher salt

  • 1 or 2 roasted garlic cloves

  • Pinch of red pepper flakes

  • Tiny pinch of sugar

  • Place ingredients in a jar and shake shake shake.

EDITOR’S NOTE FROM EMILY: My winter fridge version of Hard’s Wintery Take on a Cobb was so easy. After I made that super-delicious dressing I found hairy carrots, a sweet potato, a piece of red onion, some slightly slimy scallions. I cleaned and peeled and sliced them, then tossed them in a bit of olive oil, salt and pepper, and roasted them at 425.

I removed the onions after they started to blacken, but all the other vegetables came out when they were tender and starting to brown/blacken and caramelize. I also had some watercress to go with my romaine, eggs, and several kinds of cheese, but decided to use feta. I wanted some of the crunch of her summer salad, which uses corn, so I added some winter radishes, but accidentally forgot to put them on before I took the photo. I had toasted salted pumpkins seeds, which: Hello! Perfect! Throw them on! The only hard-and-fast instructions: you must toss your greens with the vinaigrette before building your salad. And don’t forget your radishes if you have them.

TEST KITCHEN:

A MORE CLASSIC COBB

After Hard sent me her vegetarian-friendly Cobb Salad, I got rather obsessed with chopped salads in general. As much as I love this veg-centric Cobb, I also love a classic Cobb. So I checked in my fridge to see if I could pull one off with the abundance of leftover salad ingredients I have in there pretty much constantly these days. The only thing missing was bacon. So I bought some and fried it. (which, I’m sorry: why don’t I do this every single day?)

I realize that probably everyone who loves salad already knows how to make a basic Cobb: you just chop up the stuff and put it on leaves. But I wanted to do it using both of Hard’s dressings, to prevent wasting them—and get rid of the other odds and ends I’d just created. In addition to using the exact method above— dressing a mix of romaine and watercress as the base—I topped mine with that bacon, some chicken I’d cooked to make sandwiches, hard-boiled egg, avocado, feta rather than blue cheese because my feta was open, the radishes I left out of the earlier salad, some of the blackened red onions, some grape tomatoes, and some pickled red onion dice I found on my dressing shelf. It was delicious, and I used up ingredients that might have gone to waste otherwise. With that basil ranch on the side, the way Sally Albright likes it.

As my chopped salad obsession continued, I recalled that I’d been eyeing photos of one that a Southern friend sent me, from Halls Chophouse in Charleston SC (Halls has other locations). Here is a photo I grabbed from their Facebook page, accompanied by the caption “Be like a Halls Chop Salad. Stand tall and surround yourself with bacon.” It was followed by a million people saying how it was their favorite salad, it was the best salad, and mmmmmm.

I was completely mesmerized. Just look at it! It could be an Easter bonnet. At the same time, I couldn’t decide if I found it majestic or repulsive. Viewed from one angle, in a certain light, it almost looks like a nougat dessert. From another, it could be a cylindrical pile of the limp, overdressed salad you were planning to throw out but decided to sprinkle with bacon and eat anyway.

I was wrong. It’s divine.

It seemed more than do-able when I located the recipe, even though the proportions are bizarre: it seems to be for one person while the recipe for the dressing makes almost a quart. And even though this photo looks like they use an entire quart of dressing for one serving, when I made it according to the directions, with just a few tablespoons, it was more than sufficiently dressed.

I tried getting the cylindrical shape by pressing it into a tomato can, but I was afraid to bruise the lettuce too much and it fell into a mound on the plate. But I’m not giving up. I surrounded it with my leftover radishes rather than that huge amount of bacon Halls uses. It was absolutely wonderful, with the feta melting into that—kapow!— super-peppery dressing full of scallions and herbs. It perfectly captures the allure of a chopped salad for me: a bit of every delicious thing in every bite.

*RECIPE: Halls Chophouse Chop Salad

Serves 1 (with a buttload of leftover dressing)

  • 3 ounces romaine hearts, thinly chopped

  • ½ bunch watercress, stems removed

  • 1 tablespoon diced cucumbers

  • 1 tablespoon diced celery

  • 2 tablespoons diced red and/or yellow peppers

  • 1 1/2 tablespoons crumbled Feta cheese

  • 1 1/2 tablespoon black eyed peas (I used chopped chickpeas)

  • 1 tablespoon applewood smoked bacon, cooked & crumbled (they clearly used a helluva lot more bacon than this)

  • 6 grape tomatoes, cut in half

  • 2 tablespoons green peppercorn dressing

Combine and toss all ingredients together thoroughly; garnish as you wish—meaning circle with bacon (my god), top with a sprig of watercress, a sliced grape tomato, etc. Good luck getting it to look like a cylinder.

*RECIPE: Hall’s Chophouse Green Peppercorn Dressing

  • ¼ cup finely diced shallot

  • 2 tablespoons minced garlic

  • ¼ cup champagne vinegar

  • 3 tablespoons worchestcheshcesterstershire sauce (I told you I’m never looking up the spelling again and I’m not)

  • 1 cup mayonnaise

  • ½ cup buttermilk

  • 2 tablespoons grainy mustard

  • ½ cup thinly sliced scallions

  • ¼ cup chopped chives

  • ¼ cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley

  • ½ tbs sea salt

  • ½ cup canola oil

  • 3-4 tablespoons freshly ground green peppercorns (I used a mix of pink, black, and green)

Whisk ingredients together in a bowl and refrigerate immediately.

NEXT WEEK Our guest is Mimi Aye, author of the splendid 2019 cookbook Mandalay: Recipes and Tales from a Burmese Kitchen. See you soon!

But before we go: one last no-waste tip

I was recently complaining on social media about how my dressing shelf was out of control when my salad idol, Phyllis Grant, popped on to give me this brilliant tip.