My Greek Salad

Anyone headed to any part of Greece quickly discovers that a Greek salad is a major offering…just about everywhere.

The context is usually perfectly suited for maximum enjoyment of a Greek salad. Think holidays, blue skies, the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean, sun – lots of sun and a tiny restaurant half-filled with a relaxed t-shirt and sandal-wearing staff…and a large blue pitcher filled with lemon-scented water.

My ultimate experience of a Greek salad occurred on the island of Naxos. It was a blistering hot day in mid-September. People were on edge and unsure of their future – a reaction to the terrorist attacks in America only 10 days earlier. We decided to escape for the day and explore the lesser known parts of island in the east. We ventured first to the rocky shores of the north, went through ancient olive groves in the center of Naxos, then ended up on a dirt road along the dessert-like region of the eastern coast. It was hot, empty, dusty…but we always had a view of the beautiful Mediterranean sea.

Out of nowhere along the sandy banks that sandwiched our dirt and gravel road arose a sign advertising a restaurant located up the road. It seemed out of place…perhaps even from another era…but we were hungry and looking for an adventure. The sign eventually led us to a small complex with an open patio that was covered with palm fronds. No one was in sight but amazingly, it seemed open.

We were immediately greeted as we walked into the taverna by a young man who looked like he should be spending his time on a surf board rather than in the taverna. After a few moments sharing broken English, Greek and sign language, we discovered he just opened for the day and would be happy to make us some food. Excellent…although I would say my expectations were relatively low. Nevertheless, the shady patio was welcoming.

There was no menu – just a Greek salad and a kind of fish stew. I chose the Greek salad and then we waited…and waited…and waited a bit more. Finally, the salad arrived after nearly 40 minutes – and two pitchers of lemon-scented water later.

My first reaction was one of surprise and shock by the visual appearance. The vegetables were colorful and cut into large chunks. The feta cheese was cubed and incorporated into the salad. And there were large olives and a side of dried wild thyme that grew everywhere in the region. I could even smell the greenish colored olive oil. And then I had my first bite…

The vegetables were warm, like they had been sitting in the sun. The cheese was salty and creamy. It was the ultimate explosion of flavors in my mouth. How could something so simple taste so good?

I later found out that our server – remember that surfer dude – was the only one there. It was his place. The vegetables from the salad were harvested to order from his garden out back. And the feta was made from a neighboring farm about 10 miles away.

And now I knew the secret of a great Greek salad…use the freshest, highest quality ingredients you can find.

Yield: makes about 4-6 servings

  • 750 grams (1 ½ pounds) ripe tomatoes (see tips)

  • 1 sweet pepper (see tips)

  • 2 cucumbers, cut into bite-sized pieces (see tips)

  • 1 red onion, thinly sliced

  • 2 teaspoons dried oregano or thyme

  • sea salt to season (probably about ½ teaspoon)

  • 60 ml. (1/4-cup) extra virgin olive oil

  • 1 teaspoon white wine vinegar (optional)

  • 100 grams (about 3 ounces) greek-style olives (optional, but see tips)

  • 1 tablespoon capers (optional)

  • 500 grams (one pound) tofu feta cheese (see tips)

  •  
  • Begin by preparing the tomatoes, sweet pepper and cucumbers. Wash them well and cut into nice bite-sized pieces, then add to a large salad bowl.
  • Add the sliced red onions, dried herbs and the sea salt. Mix well.
  • Next, add the extra virgin olive oil – use enough to make sure everything is well-coated. Add the optional vinegar, olives and capers. Toss well to combine.
  • Serve the salad in bowls and to with one large piece of tofu for each serving, or cut the tofu feta into pieces and toss together with the other ingredients before serving.

Jack’s Fresh Tip

It’s not really important what size of tomato you select…but it is very critical to use a ripe, extremely tasty tomato with a nice bite of sweetness. This usually means vine-ripened, but if you’re not growing your own tomato, then perhaps it would be good to visit a local farmer’s market and try to find the tasty tomato you can get a hold of…trust me – the search is fun!

Most Greek salads I had while visiting the islands were green, although you can make the salad with yellow or red sweet peppers. I like to find those yellow sweet peppers with nice shades of green.

You may need to remove the seeds from the cucumber you select, depending on variety and age. A general rule is remove the seeds if they are rather large and plentiful, otherwise just leave them there.

The use of the vinegar is purely to bring some acidity into the dish. If your tofu feta and tomatoes are on the acidic side, then you can leave the vinegar out…otherwise, add it to create a balance in tastes.

I always add the olives to create a saltiness to the salad…and a slight bit of umami. I try to use the dried black olives or kalamata olives. In either case, use olives that still have the pits because these will be the most flavorsome.

Tofu feta cheese is increasingly popular and available in most stores selling natural or health food products. Check the label and make sure it is acceptable to whatever diet your are following. Alternatively, make your own tofu feta – it is simple and delicious!

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