The Greek salad is a pretty simple affair that represents Mediterranean cuisine at its best. Healthful, refreshing and balanced, every bite of what the Greeks call “horiatiki salata” invites a sensation – be it the saltiness of the olives and feta cheese, the sweetness and acid of the tomatoes, the bite of the onions, the richness of olive oil or the herbaceousness of Greek oregano. Add to that the vibrancy of the ingredients’ colors, the contrasting textures and the fact that the salad requires so little to put together, and the sum total is unfettered satisfaction.
As would be the case with a dish that no doubt was made in ancient times, opinions run strong about which deviations from the basic recipe are allowable.
Even the olives can be a nonstarter.
“It was forced into my head from an early age by my father’s father, who was from Kalamos, that a horiatiki salad was only tomato, cucumber, white onion, olive oil, feta cheese, salt and really good oregano,” says chef John Manolatos of Cashion’s Eat Place in Washington.
Dodoni brand feta, made from ewe’s and goat’s milk in the Epirus region of northwestern Greece, has a pleasant tang and a less-chalky texture than does the cow’s-milk feta prevalent in American grocery stores, such as Whole Foods’ 365 brand feta. Per Greek law and the European Union, only cheese made in Greece from 70 percent sheep’s milk and 30 percent goat’s milk can be called feta. As the feta is the crowning glory of a Greek salad, its quality makes all the difference.
I have a laissez-faire attitude toward horiatiki. I use small, organic pickling cucumbers, mini seedless cucumbers or English cucumbers because they don’t need to be peeled and are less watery than regular cucumbers. I like to include red and daikon radishes, some avocado and slices of jalapeno to inject heat. As noted before, the traditional horiatiki doesn’t call for vinegar, but I like red wine vinegar’s extra touch of acid in the mix.
Two ingredients, in my opinion, are vital to any version of Greek salad: dried Greek oregano and Greek olive oil. If you place Greek oregano next to generic oregano or what’s called “Mediterranean oregano,” you’ll notice that the Greek is darker and finer. It has a more pungent, earthier flavor than the others, which have a touch of marjoram sweetness to them. Greek olive oil (high-quality, of course), to me, is greener, sweeter and more luxuriant than many Italian or Spanish ones I’ve tried. While performing my Greek salad experiments, I used the horiatiki profile to fashion an intensely flavored salsa as an accompaniment to grilled fish or seafood. I cut the cucumber into small, neat squares, tossed them with semi-dried cherry tomatoes in oil (a great find at Whole Foods Market), feta cubes, cured black olives and preserved lemon bits. Spread on labneh and served with pita triangles, the salsa transformed into a meze.
One item most everyone agrees does not belong in an authentic Greek salad is lettuce. Naturally, I couldn’t resist spreading a mixture of cucumbers, sun-dried tomatoes, olives, feta cheese and labneh on overlapping romaine leaves and rolling it all into a cylinder, to be sliced into medallions for a first-course, restaurant-worthy presentation. It’s a method chef-restaurateur Michael Richard created for his riff on Caesar salad.
Almost Classic Horiatiki
In this recipe, radishes add to the cucumbers’ crunch; jalapeno pepper and red wine vinegar add zestiness. Whether you peel the cucumbers is up to you.
Make ahead: The ingredients can be prepped and refrigerated separately a day in advance, but assemble the salad just before serving.
2 pounds Campari or Kumato tomatoes, peeled, hulled and cut into 2-inch pieces (see note)
4 mini cucumbers (seeded) or 1 English (seedless) cucumber, cut into 1-inch pieces
½ small red onion, cut into thin slices
½ small daikon radish, peeled and cubed
10 red radishes, trimmed and cut into quarters
½ small jalapeno pepper, seeded, if desired, cut crosswise into thin slices
1 cup pitted kalamata olives (may substitute other Greek olives)
½ teaspoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon dried Greek oregano
½ cup Greek olive oil
One 8-ounce block feta cheese, cut into 6 equal slices
Combine the tomatoes, cucumbers, onion, daikon and red radishes, jalapeno, olives, salt, vinegar, ½ teaspoon of the oregano and œ cup of the oil in a large bowl. Toss to coat evenly and incorporate.
Divide evenly among individual plates. Top each portion with a slice of feta. Sprinkle the cheese with the remaining oregano and drizzle with the remaining oil.
Note: To peel and seed tomatoes, bring a medium saucepan of water to a boil. Have ready a bowl of ice water. Cut an “X” in the bottom of each tomato and remove the stem. Working with one at a time, place the tomato in the boiling water for 15 seconds. Use a slotted spoon to quickly transfer it to the ice water. The skin should slip off.
Per serving: 330 calories, 8 grams of protein, 13 grams of carbohydrates, 29 grams of fat, 9 grams of saturated fat, 35 milligrams of cholesterol, 800 milligrams of sodium, 4 grams of dietary fiber and 8 grams of sugar.