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 non-starter.
"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. "No [additional] acid at all, no peppers and definitely no olives."
Manolatos pretty much adheres to that. In the summer, he combines heirloom tomatoes at their peak with fresh oregano, Dodoni feta cheese and Lakonian extra-virgin olive oil made from kalamata olives, the kind often found in horiatiki iterations.
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. 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. (It's the same sort of protection awarded to Roquefort cheese, though the feta designation doesn't extend to the United States. And what is called Bulgarian feta, for example, is made from sheep's milk and yogurt culture, which accounts for its shrill tang.)
As the feta is the crowning glory of a Greek salad, its quality makes all the difference.
The Greek version of panzanella, the Dakos salad, hails from Crete. That salad is made by dressing tomatoes, black olives, oregano and capers or caper berries with olive oil and piling them on top of dried barley bread to absorb juices.
Because the Greek salad is my favorite, I don't limit myself to making it in summer. I know it's sacrilegious to some food folk to use tomatoes out of season, but I've found certain greenhouse-grown varieties, such Kumato and Campari, to be juicy, flavorful
and perfectly acceptable, provided their thick skins are removed.
In my take on the Dakos salad, I use Camparis, pureeing a couple of them to use as soaking liquid for toasted ciabatta bread slices that anchor the dish. As flavor enhancements, I throw in dill and scallions.
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 if I have one on hand and slices of jalapeno to inject heat. Others like to add bell or peperoncini peppers and capers.
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, 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. I call mine a Greek Salad Salad.