A Greek Salad

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.


Caprese Salad

The woods are full of recipes for Caprese Salad, and here’s my take on the matter.   Although the basic structure of the salad is a simple one, the dish cannot be successfully made or even contemplated until the best tomatoes are in full season. In California, that generally means you have to wait until at least June when the first of the heirloom tomatoes hits the local farmers’ markets.  Those red, flavorless cotton balls that supermarkets call tomatoes not only won’t do for a Caprese Salad; they won’t do for anything.

The basic Caprese consists of overlapping tomato slices, with thin pieces of a good fresh mozzarella di bufala and whole leaves of fresh basil in between each of the tomato slices.  Drizzle generously a good extra-virgin oil over the slices of things thus arranged, sprinkle a bit of salt over all … and that’s it.

Here’s what I do for what I think is a more interesting and decidedly richer version:  I start by making a vinaigrette out of a good extra-virgin olive oil, just barely tinted with a bit of red wine and balsamic vinegars.  Add to the dressing some minced shallot and some salt.  Then, cover the bottom of a plate with a a layer of small greens … micro-greens are great for this.  Dress the greens very lightly with olive oil and a hint of salt.  Around the edges of the greens, arrange tomato slices concentrically overlapping.  Instead of interleaving the tomato slices with mozzarella, take a couple of fresh balls of burrata cheese, cut them into quarters and place them on top of the greens in the center of the circle of tomato slices.  Then take some fresh basil leaves, roll them up, and thinly slice them, chiffonade style.  Sprinkle the basil generously over both tomatoes and burrata and spoon the vinaigrette over all. That’s it.

Burrata, of course, is largely mozzarella, but the difference is that the interior of the burrata is a soft, slightly runny blend of cream and cheese … absolutely and wonderfully decadent.

A final word on tomatoes.  Most people know that you never refrigerate them … that’s instant death.  However, you can put never-refrigerated tomatoes in the fridge for, say, a half-hour just to cool them down prior to making the salad.  Once the summer heirlooms are gone, the chances of making a decent Caprese drop to near zero.  If you’re dying for an off-season reminder, you can use those rather good Mexican heirloom grape tomatoes that Trader Joe’s carries.  Just halve them and arrange them around the greens … all else stays the same.  It will get you through the winter.