Table for One

The Epic Cobb Salad I Make for Myself When I Want It All

A solitary lunch for greedy eaters.

by:
March 22, 2019
Photo by Ty Mecham

Table for One is a column by Senior Editor Eric Kim, who loves cooking for himself—and only himself—and seeks to celebrate the beauty of solitude in its many forms.


"The whole is greater than the sum of its parts." Contrary to popular belief, Aristotle never said this. What he did say, in Metaphysics, Book VIII, was: "In the case of all things which have several parts and in which the totality is not, as it were, a mere heap, but the whole is something beside the parts, there is a cause."

In other words: The whole is something other than the sum of its parts.

This is often how I feel about those heavily dressed, old-fashioned chopped salads you get at restaurants. The individual ingredients themselves taste kind of terrible; cobbled together, they're less terrible (but still terrible), masked by the mere fact that they happen to be at the same gloopy party. Here, the whole is something other than the sum of its parts, but not necessarily greater.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“While a salad doesn't exactly sound extravagant, all of the parts coming together in a composed cobb make me feel just as celebrated as a nice steak. Solo dinner last night was a ridiculously large sweet potato with plenty of kerrygold salted butter and brown sugar, a bunch of peas, and a few slices of rare steak. I wouldn't say no to all those elements on a bed of lettuce. ”
— Marie
Comment

"It is too often a fine example of American excessiveness," Amanda Hesser once wrote in The New York Times about a Cobb salad she had for lunch at the Cub Room Cafe. "But when a chopped salad is done well, it is a synthesis of seasonal flavors that transcends its parts."

"In my opinion, Cobb salad has too many things," says Executive Editor Joanna Sciarrino. "Chicken, eggs, and bacon? Pick one, come on."

"It's a chicken club, as a salad," Recipe Developer Emma Laperruque chimes in. "With egg."

"...and avocado and blue cheese and chives." (Sciarrino again.)

The point, I think, is that the parts themselves can be a little boring—so why would the whole taste any better? But once you treat the components of a Cobb salad as if you'll be eating each on its own, the whole can feel somehow more synthesized and deliberate. Together, everyone achieves more. Which is to say: Perfect the bacon, cook the chicken in the bacon fat, soft-boil the egg so it's jammy, let the blue cheese sit out for a second to ooze and luxuriate. Arrange these disparate parts together and, frankly, how bad could that be?

And when I say arrange, I do mean arrange each ingredient on the plate, separately. One might call this a salade composée, or "composed salad" (the chopped salad's fussier transatlantic cousin). Whatever you call it, I much prefer this form to the muddled, overwhelming homogeny of a chopped Cobb salad.

The eating is more pleasurable, as well. This way, with each part identifiable, you can really appreciate the taste of the bacon you've perfectly crisped up, the chicken thigh you've carefully pan-roasted, and the egg you've soft-boiled exactly how you like. Each bite is a progression from the last, each bite somehow better than the last. In this Cobb salad, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Cobb salad, color-blocked. Photo by Ty Mecham

Food writer John Birdsall says it best in his James Beard Award–winning Lucky Peach essay, "America, Your Food Is So Gay":

My salades composées were thickets of yearning, drifts of leaves and flowers, sprigs of herbs and tiny carrots that looked like they had been blown there by some mighty force of nature. I was fueled by sublimated rage, the outsider with something to prove, taking the ingredients I was handed and making sure they transcended their limits.

Though my Cobb salad for one wasn't fueled, per se, by any sublimated rage, it was certainly fueled by an intense greediness for variety. "If you think about it, chopped salads and salades composées can be seen as a precursor to all the bowl food everyone is now eating," Hesser tells me. "Lots of flavors to keep you stimulated, plus a toe touch on every food group to keep you sated. It's a winning formula 20 years ago, and now, too."

I make this epic Cobb salad for myself when I'm feeling a little extra, hungry but not quite able to pick out exactly what I want to eat among the various food groups. It's of great comfort to me, then, knowing that I don't have to pick; I can have the chicken, the eggs, and the bacon. Better yet, each will be perfectly cooked and balanced and deliberately composed in relation to the rest. Cobb salad is exactly what I want to eat when I want to eat absolutely everything.

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
No One

Which leads me back to Aristotle: The point isn't necessarily that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; it's that the whole is great because the parts are great. Take, for instance, chicken, eggs, bacon, blue cheese, tomatoes, chives, and avocado—a very strange, potent, protein-heavy set of parts.

But compose them gently over a bed of lettuce—or better yet, over something bitter and dark and interesting like radicchio? You've got the trappings of a transcendent lunch.

Do you ever order Cobb salad at restaurants? Tell, tell in the comments.

20 Comments

Mischa B. April 2, 2019
Ahh, I love a meal where I can make each bite as simple or as fork-bendingly (is that even a word? if not, it should be) heavy and complex as I want.
I love to have freshly toasted, salted pine nuts on hand to add an extra ounce of character to my meals. In the bottom of a good sized preheated nonstick skillet, add some olive oil (or French butter), cover the skillet with pine nuts, sprinkle with sea salt, and give it a good stir to coat the nuts. With the skillet on medium to medium high* heat, medium only for butter, toast them until they are almost as golden brown as you like them. (*It depends on how fast you can get them off of the heat. The difference between golden brown and burnt is about a nanosecond!) Get them out of the skillet asap and into a bowl to cool. I keep them in a container in the refrigerator. I have no idea how long they'll keep, after a day or two there's never any left to find out.
After I made a batch the other night, I tossed a little olive oil and butternut zoodles into that pan. I let them sautee until al dente and turned down the heat. I added gorgonzola to coat the zoodles and mix with the pan juices. Ah-ma-zing. So good with a balsamic-based arugala salad to cut through the richness of the cheese. If I can resist the temptation to spoon the nuts all over my pasta and my salad, I add them to the side of my plate. A bite of this, of that, of everything together, and I am a happy camper. Oh, and a glass, or two, of wine. Can't forget about the wine...
 
Author Comment
Eric K. April 5, 2019
Love the ritual of it all.
 
Marie March 28, 2019
I love extravagant meals for one. While a salad doesn't exactly sound extravagant, all of the parts coming together in a composed cobb make me feel just as celebrated as a nice steak. Solo dinner last night was a ridiculously large sweet potato with plenty of kerrygold salted butter and brown sugar, a bunch of peas, and a few slices of rare steak. I wouldn't say no to all those elements on a bed of lettuce.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. March 30, 2019
Kerrygold butter is where it’s at.
 
Eileen S. March 23, 2019
Yes, I order Cobb salad in restaurants. But only for the bacon. The rest of the bowl is generally inedible and somewhat of a gloppy mess. But, ah, that bacon...
 
Author Comment
Eric K. March 23, 2019
Bacon is the best.
 
Amanda H. March 25, 2019
Like your style!
 
Rosa March 23, 2019
Ha ha ha...well, I’ve always loved Cobb Salad...but you’ve elevated it to heavenly status!! 😄 Loving your writing! 😄
 
Author Comment
Eric K. March 23, 2019
Aw, thank you!
 
Caitlin G. March 23, 2019
mmmm love me a good dinner salad. the salad lyonnaise is one of my favs - almost the same ingredients as the cobb, minus the chicken + avo, plus crunchy croutons =)
 
Author Comment
Eric K. March 23, 2019
Mmm, sounds fab.
 
CameronM5 March 22, 2019
I used to order Cobb salads in the midst of my frequent low-carb diets. They are filling without adding a filler.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. March 23, 2019
The keto diner’s dream.
 
SophieL March 31, 2019
I'm on keto and the Cobb salad is the most satisfying salad when I go out. And I'm going to make Eric's because it will exceed any I've had at restaurants (love the idea of browning the chicken thigh in the bacon fat).
 
alygator March 22, 2019
I love the idea of using radicchio and malt vinegar! This will be on rotation once I find a swap for blue cheese. Gorgeous.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. March 22, 2019
Thanks! I love the bitterness of radicchio and malt vinegar is what I always have on hand. Are you dairy-free or just blue cheese averse? You could swap it with burrata or ricotta, even cottage cheese, or nothing. I see this more as a blueprint for building a HUGE plate of delicious food.
 
alygator March 23, 2019
Thank you! Blue cheese is one of the few foods I don't like which I find sad because I am sure it plays a wonderful complement to so many foods. I think you are right - the creaminess of burrata or ricotta would play nicely with the radicchio!
 
javafiend March 24, 2019
Interesting...Bleu/Blue cheeses always make me hurl, so I’ve been spared the Cobb salad experience 😏
 
Whiteantlers March 22, 2019
Goodness! While I tried Cobb salad in a restaurant years ago and a few times at buffets, what was served under the guise of "Cobb" finally made me leery of eating it ever again. Yours, though; it looks decadent. The textures. The crunch.

My Greedy Singleton Salad is a plain one but I never tire of it. It starts with a skinless, boneless chicken breast gently poached in chicken stock, cooled then cubed. Into the bowl with it is diced celery, sliced scallions (white and green parts), and quarter of a red onion, finely cubed. I plop in avocado oil mayo to coat everything but not drown it, add salt and cracked black and white peppercorns some everything bagel seasoning and then gently mix. This gets transferred to a big plate of mixed baby spring mix which is usually some frisee, arugala, a little radicchio, young Boston lettuce, red and green lettuces, some cilantro and a bit of fresh dill. If I have a jar of artichoke hearts, I will add 3 or 4 along with a whole, cubed avocado. The finale is a big handful of roasted pecans or walnuts (unsalted) that I roughly chop then scatter over the chicken mixture. If I want to have a "celebrate for no reason" meal, then I replace those nuts with roughly chopped salted pistachios. There is complete joy and contentment at my table when I am eating this. I've tried adding capers but (for me) they detract rather than enhance. If avocados are not around but red or green grapes are, I'll halve a dozen and use them instead. Part of the selfish delight of Greedy Salad is not having to be fake polite about sharing the ingredients you really love with another diner. From late spring until the East coast temperatures dip way down in autumn, I make this at least once a week and it is always a guaranteed pleasure for lunch or dinner. Sometimes both.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. March 22, 2019
"Greedy Singleton Salad" and "Celebrate for No Reason Meal" are my new favorite phrases. Your chicken salad sounds divine, exactly the kind of thing I'd want to eat after a long day.