The Greek Salad, as it is usually called, can be found on countless menus these days from luncheon counters to serious dinner spots. Except mostly for Greek restaurants, who take their roots seriously, It’s usually an Americanized version of the original Mediterranean dish the Greeks call a “choriatiki salata” or χωριάτικησαλάτα, if you’re being philologically serious. It translates as “village” or “country salad.” In any case, it’s one of the great culinary triumphs of the Mediterranean in summer, which is the only time of the year that the salad is made. That’s because the most important ingredient in the dish is the tomato at the height of its summertime Mediterranean glory, and which doesn’t exist in any form at all in Greece during other seasons of the year. It’s also interesting to note that, during that same time of year, Greek lettuce really doesn’t exist, so a “Greek Salad” with lettuce, an almost standard phenomenon in the U.S. is a kind of combination that Greece would never even contemplate.
The ingredients of a true Greek Salad are simple enough: gloriously ripe and sweet tomatoes, cucumber, green bell pepper, feta cheese, and Kalamata olives. I like to peel the cucumber first, slice it lengthwise, and, with the tip of a teaspoon, remove the seeds and pulp. This keeps the salad from becoming overly watery. Cut 1/3 inch-thick slices from the block of feta, and reserve. The Greeks never remove the pits from their Kalamata olives, so I don’t either. Some cooks, including me, like to add small cuts of purple onion to the salad. If you’re worried about guests who don’t particularly like the onion’s strong acids, just soak the pieces of red onion in some ice water for about 1 hour, before squeezing them dry in a paper towel prior to their inclusion in the salad.
When ready to assemble and serve the salad, just gently mix all of the ingredients except the olives and feta cheese and array them, thus mixed, on a flat dish or platter … the Greeks never serve this salad in a bowl. Now … drizzle the salad with a good extra-virgin olive oil. It would be reasonable to use a Greek oil, but, if you don’t have one on hand, it’s no big deal. The only kind of olive oil I would avoid is the Tuscan, slightly greenish variety … you know … the kind that sort of burns the back of your throat. Leave that oil for other purposes. Note, because this is really important: this salad is never to be dressed with a vinaigrette. The inherent piquancy of the cheese, the tomatoes, and the olives are all the salad needs to merge with the olive oil … no vinegars, please. Now, lightly salt the ingredients you’ve just oiled, scatter the Kalamata olives generously around and atop the salad. Then take those slices of feta and scatter them around as well, breaking them into smaller pieces, if you like. Do not crumble them. Now, and as a final step, sprinkle everything with a light dusting of dried oregano flakes and serve. No need to toss.
During my years in the Greek Mediterranean I have occasionally encountered a chef who like to add a few anchovies to the final assemblage, but, while I like anchovies, their addition is somewhat unorthodox, and there are lots of folk out there who despise those fishes, so enquire first if you are minded to make this variation.
You know … it strikes me that I should write something further about feta cheese, but I’ll save that for another time. Meanwhile, as the Greeks like to say:
καλὴ ὂρεξη … bon appétit.