~ The beloved, classic chicken Cobb salad gets a holiday twist! Hearts of romaine lettuce are perfectly suited to become a “Christmas tree,” complete with tomato-ornaments, a golden pepper-star … even packages under the tree! This Holiday Salad is surprisingly simple to make, and can even be made ahead! Wow your guests with a fun new recipe this year – make this absolutely delicious, crowd-pleasing showstopper for your holiday table! ~
This Recipe Is: • Ready in 30 Minutes or Less • Make Ahead • Vegetarian Option • Gluten Free (see note) •
“O Christmas Tree … O Christmas Tree …” (are you hearing holiday music here?) “… How lovely are thy branches …”
Definitely the perfect carol to hum while you make this gorgeous holiday salad!
And with this salad, “How lovely are thy branches …” (hint: VERY lovely!) absolutely takes on a whole new, delicious meaning!
I created this beauty last year, when I was assigned to bring a salad to our Oma’s Christmas feast. I’d brought our super-cute, wreath-shaped Christmas Salad, and our always-popular, festive Salad with Goat Cheese to Oma’s Christmas party sooooo many times before. And I just really wanted to try something new. I mean, sure – those two salads are guaranteed home runs, but as a food blogger, I’m always itching to think up some creative, new twist.
And here it is!
Classic Chicken Cobb Salad Meets (Delicious) Holiday Glam
From the very first time I made it, this salad was a huge hit – so many layers of delicious flavors and textures!
It’s all based on the iconic ingredients you’ll usually find in a Cobb salad:
- Crisp, fresh lettuce
- Satisfying chicken and hits of flavorful bacon
- Chopped hard-boiled eggs
- A little spicy red onion and plenty of creamy avocado
- Pretty cherry tomato “ornaments”
- A final sprinkling of blue cheese “snow” on the branches (this is optional or can be served on the side for those who don’t care for blue cheese)
A yellow pepper turns into a perfect, tree-topping star, and red peppers make quick gifts to stash under the tree!
And of course, since this is a THK recipe:
- It’s got healthier upgrades along the way. (Because nobody needs more holiday-food-guilt!)
- Despite how cute it is, it’s actually super easy (and fun) to make!
- And it can be made partly or entirely ahead of time (except for cubing the avocado) – so there’s no last-minute holiday stress!
How to Make This Holiday Salad
Once you’ve gathered and chopped your ingredients, the salad comes together so easily, in really just minutes! Here’s what you do:
Step 1 – Start arranging your lettuce spears on a large platter, so the biggest spears are at the bottom of your Christmas tree. Work toward the top with progressively smaller and smaller spears to create a “tree” shape.
We prefer to use romaine lettuce “hearts” that we purchase in 3-pack bags at our grocery store. The “hearts” are a bit more slender than the outer leaves you’ll typically find on larger, full heads of romaine.
And that serving platter? In our pictures, I used an oval platter that was about 14″ x 18″, but don’t worry if you don’t have that exact size. You can adapt your tree’s size a little, to fit your platter. I’ve also used a 12″ x 17″ rimmed jelly roll baking pan to make this, and it works great, too.
So, if you don’t have a large platter, try a baking sheet. Just make sure it has sides or rims (the way a jelly roll pan does), rather than being a flat cookie sheet. That way, if you pour your dressing over the entire salad (instead of passing it at the table), it won’t overflow onto the table (party foul)!
Step 2 – As you’re layering on your lettuce, be sure to sprinkle some of your salad toppings in amongst the lettuce leaves (except the tomatoes – save those to decorate at the end).
You want to have some toppings all throughout the salad, not just laying on top. But of course, reserve plenty of the toppings for the final, decorative layer, too!
Step 3 – Place the halved cherry tomatoes on your tree to look like ornaments. Then sprinkle crumbled blue cheese around for a flurry of “snowflakes” to finish. So pretty!
Step 4 – To make the star to top your tree, grab a yellow bell pepper with large, flat sides. Use a star-shaped cutter to create the star.
I find that it’s easiest to cut the pepper with the outer skin facing downward on the cutting board, so you cut through the inner flesh first.
(This set of star-shaped cutters in different sizes comes in super handy all throughout the year, whether I’m making winter holiday recipes like this one, or stars for our 4th of July Salads and Fruit Kabobs.)
Step 5 – To make the presents, choose a few red bell peppers with broad, flat sides. Use a sharp knife to cut the peppers into different-sized square and rectangular “packages.”
Then, cut very thin strips of American cheese to make the “ribbons” on your packages.
I like to buy both orange and white American cheese, so I have different colors of “ribbons.”
Also, I definitely prefer the flavor of deli-purchased American cheese, instead of individually wrapped Kraft singles. And, I find that the deli cheese actually sticks itself onto the pepper “packages” really well, too.
Pro tip: If your cheese isn’t staying in place, you can moisten it ever so slightly with a few dabs of your fingers, that have been dampened in tap water. But generally, I find that’s not necessary. In a pinch, when using Kraft singles that weren’t cooperating, I’ve also placed the cheese-topped peppers in the microwave for just a very few seconds, to warm the cheese so it adheres to the pepper “packages.” But if you try this, you have to be very, very careful not to microwave them for more than a couple of seconds at a time, checking vigilantly as you go – otherwise, the cheese can get too melty and runny, so it doesn’t look like a pretty ribbon anymore.
What Salad Dressing Goes Best with This Cobb Salad?
As you can see on the recipe card, I’ve included directions for making a yummy, low-fat Italian Red Wine Vinaigrette Dressing to go with this salad.
This type of vinaigrette is a fairly common accompaniment to classic Cobb salad recipes. And, I definitely love how the sharp, flavorful vinaigrette works with all the other flavors here. It’s always the dressing I offer alongside when I make this Christmas Tree Holiday Salad.
But, feel free to serve other dressings your family likes, as well. Of course, if you’re purchasing store-bought salad dressing, I recommend looking for healthier, organic, or Greek yogurt-based dressings. Purchased salad dressings sometimes contain less-than-ideal ingredients and a surprising amount of fat and calories (which suddenly makes a healthy salad … ummmm … not so healthy!).
Many of the ingredients you need for this salad can be purchased, pre-prepped, at the grocery store. These sneaky shortcuts can save valuable prep time during the busy holiday season.
• Instead of cooking chicken, I always start with a purchased rotisserie chicken. (You know I love rotisserie chicken recipes!)
• If you want to save the time of cooking bacon, you can purchase pre-crumbled real bacon bits or pieces (NOT Bac-Os). Whether you opt to cook your own or purchase pre-cooked, be sure to take a moment to find the healthiest bacon available. Turkey bacon and center-cut bacon are both leaner options than regular pork bacon, and some brands such as Hormel offer precooked, lower-fat real bacon bits.
• Most major grocery stores also carry pre-chopped onion and chopped hard-boiled egg – either in the produce section, or on the salad bar.
You can slice, chop and whisk most all of the salad ingredients, even a day or two ahead.
• You can dice your chicken, cook and crumble your bacon (if you’re not using store-bought bacon bits), and dice your egg and onion (again, if you’re not using store-bought, pre-chopped).
• You can also cut out your pepper star and make your pepper presents.
• And, you can make the Italian Red Wine Vinaigrette Dressing several days ahead.
Store all those ingredients in separate containers or zipper bags in your fridge – and your salad is already just minutes away from completion! That’s some real holiday joy, for sure!
I would wait, however, to slice your tomatoes until closer to time. And, definitely don’t chop your avocado until just before you serve your salad, since avocados oxidize and turn brown fairly quickly after they’re cut.
Besides pre-chopping your ingredients, you can even go further and assemble the entire salad early in the day or the night before – except for those avocados. Wrap the entire salad platter in plastic wrap to keep the lettuce from wilting, and store it in the fridge somewhere you know it won’t get smashed.
Just a little before serving your salad, toss on the cubed avocados and re-whisk the dressing … and your delicious, festive tree is all ready to go!
Making This Christmas Tree Salad Vegetarian … or Omitting Certain Ingredients
Although Cobb salads typically include cubed chicken and crumbled bacon, I’ve also served a vegetarian version of this salad (specifically for my vegetarian sister-in-law). It’s still great!
Of course, you could try using vegetarian “bacon” and “chicken” – but I don’t bother. I just leave them off a salad portion for her.
You can also simply offer the bacon and chicken – or any other ingredients you think some guests may not like (such as the blue cheese) – on the side. That gives guests the option to add them to their own, individual portions.
For example, my son, Ty, isn’t a big fan of blue cheese. So, when I make this salad just for the four of us, I usually serve the cheese on the side. We can each add a bit of blue cheese to our own portion (or not).
It’s pretty adaptable!
The couple of things I’d say aren’t really negotiable are those darling tomato “ornaments” and the yellow pepper star. Those are total must-haves in order for this holiday salad to actually look like a Christmas tree. But luckily, those items are also easy to pick off if anyone doesn’t happen to like them!
Adjusting the Yield of This Salad Recipe
Besides changing up the amounts of various ingredients, it’s also really simple to scale the entire salad recipe up or down, depending on the size of your party.
I usually make this salad as listed on the recipe card, but I’ve also doubled it for our big Christmas party at our Oma’s house. Super easy to do!
First, you can vary the amount of lettuce you use by piling it onto the platter in thicker (or thinner) layers.
Similarly, you can then increase or decrease the other ingredients (and the dressing) accordingly.
How to Serve Your Holiday Salad
I always serve this salad kind of like a wedge salad. Everyone scoops up the whole spears of lettuce (and toppings) to cut up on their plates as they eat.
Another option: Let everyone enjoy ooooohing and aaaaaahing over your festive Christmas tree. Then – right before you eat – grab a knife or some kitchen shears, and quickly cut the salad up. With this option, you’re basically serving it like a chopped, tossed salad.
An Edible Holiday Centerpiece
You know I love recipes that are so darned cute, they actually do double-duty as edible centerpieces on the buffet line or the table.
There’s our adorable Turkey Thanksgiving Salad, our festive 4th of July Fruit Salads, our Christmas Wreath Appetizer … and now this unique Christmas Tree Holiday Salad. Recipes that have WOW! factor, in addition to being delicious. The “oooooooh … who brought that?!?!” recipes everybody will remember, long after the party’s over.
Set this salad in an honored, prominent spot where all the dinner guests can appreciate it. (And be hugely impressed with your holiday spirit and creativity!)
More than just a side salad, it’s a decoration, too!
“O Christmas Tree … O Christmas Tree …”
Let the festivities begin! Happy holidays, everyone!
- 3 heads of romaine lettuce hearts, rinsed and dried
- 1 1/2 cups diced, cooked chicken (we use purchased rotisserie chicken – see note)
- 1 avocado, diced
- 2 hard-boiled eggs, diced (we use purchased – see note)
- 1/4 cup diced, cooked turkey bacon or extra-lean center-cut bacon (from about 4 slices) (can use purchased – see note)
- 3 tablespoons finely diced red onion
- 10 red cherry tomatoes, sliced in half vertically through stem
- 10 yellow cherry tomatoes, sliced in half vertically through stem
- 1/3 cup crumbled blue cheese (can use reduced-fat)
- 1 yellow pepper (for star)
- 2-3 red peppers (for presents)
- 1-2 slices American cheese (for ribbons on presents – we use both orange and white)
Italian Red Wine Vinaigrette Dressing (optional – or dressing of choice)
- 1/2 cup red wine vinegar
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 5 teaspoons honey
- 1 tablespoon smooth dijon mustard
- 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/2 teaspoon oregano
- 1/4 teaspoon dried basil
- 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
Lay your lettuce leaves on a large oval platter or a large, rimmed jelly roll pan. (The platter I used in the photos is about 14" x 18", but I've also made this salad on a 12" x 17" jelly roll pan.) Position longer, larger leaves at the bottom of the platter, leaving a little room to nestle the red pepper "presents" at the very bottom. Place progressively smaller and smaller leaves on the platter as you work toward the top of the platter, so it resembles the cone-shape of a Christmas tree.
As you layer on your lettuce, sprinkle a little of the chicken, avocado, eggs, bacon, and red onion throughout the layers, making sure you have plenty left to sprinkle on top. (Reserve the avocado until the last minute, though, if you're making this salad ahead of time – see note on make-ahead tips.)
Place the tomato halves, cut-side down on top of the salad, positioned to resemble ornaments.
Sprinkle the blue cheese on top to resemble snow. (Alternately, you can serve the blue cheese on the side if all of your guests don't like blue cheese.)
Cut the largest, flattest side off of the yellow pepper and use a star-shaped cookie cutter to cut out a star and place it at the top of your Christmas tree.
Using a sharp knife or cookie cutters, cut squares and rectangles out of the broad sides of the red peppers. Slice very thin strips of American cheese to lay on top of the peppers as ribbon. (If the cheese isn't adhering well to the peppers, very slightly dampening it on one side can help. Or, you can just barely soften it by placing the cheese-topped peppers in the microwave for maybe 10 seconds, so that the cheese softens just enough to stick better – but be careful not to heat it for so long that it loses its shape.) Place the presents at the bottom of the tree.
Serve with Italian Red Wine Vinaigrette Dressing, or your dressing of choice.
Purchased chicken, hard-boiled eggs, bacon, and onion: Depending on how much time you have to make this salad, you can choose to prepare and cook these items yourself, or purchase pre-cooked at the store. If purchasing pre-cooked bacon bits, be sure to use real bacon, rather than Bac-Os, and look for reduced-fat, leaner options (such as Hormel's reduced-fat bacon pieces), if possible. To save time during the holidays, you can also typically find diced hard-boiled eggs and red onion in the dairy and produce sections, or on the salad bar at most larger grocery stores.
Dressing options: Red wine vinaigrette is a classic choice for dressing Cobb salads, and we love the Italian flavor and sharp tang of our dressing, with the other flavors of the salad. Feel free, however, to use other dressing varieties that you like (trying to stick with organic, homemade, or Greek yogurt-based options if possible).
Make-ahead tips: You can completely assemble the salad (except the avocado) earlier in the day, or the night before. Wrap your salad platter with plastic wrap to prevent the lettuce from wilting (but be careful not to smash the lettuce by wrapping too tightly), and store in the refrigerator. Because avocado oxidizes and turns brown after cutting, we recommend that you sprinkle the avocado on at the last minute, or dice it just before serving and offer it in a bowl alongside. The dressing can be made up to several days in advance. However, it doesn't emulsify as completely as most of our other vinaigrettes, so you'll need to re-whisk it before serving.
Adaptations for vegetarians or for food preferences: I've also served this in a vegetarian version, omitting the bacon and chicken. If you'd like, you can serve certain toppings in a bowl off to the side, so that each guest can add the meat toppings (or toppings such as the blue cheese) only if they choose to do so. The most important things in making this look like a Christmas tree are the tomato "ornaments" and the pepper "star." The other toppings can be adjusted somewhat to accommodate personal preferences. Similarly, you can add more or less of certain toppings, depending on which you like best.
Adjusting the amount this salad serves: I've also made this salad double in yield, to serve at a larger holiday party. It's easy to do this by layering the lettuce more thickly, and increasing the amount of toppings and dressing.
Gluten-free tips: Although the ingredients used in this salad are all generally gluten free, there are a few items you may need to be careful with, when purchasing. Bacon, purchased rotisserie chicken, and dijon mustard usually don't contain gluten, but some brands may use seasonings that do have gluten, so be sure to read the labels carefully or look for gluten-free labeling, if needed. You can read more about purchasing gluten-free rotisserie chicken HERE, and about gluten-free mustard HERE.