There is nothing delicate about a Greek salad. It's one of those simple, earthy dishes composed of what the rocky Greek soil and searing growing-season temperatures sustain. Called a horiatiki salata, or "peasant" salad, in Greek, it's the product of a terroir that's generally inhospitable in summer to such heat-sensitive, broad-leaved things as salad lettuce.
When Ralpheal Abrahante, chef at the award-winning Thalassa Greek restaurant in New York, first saw a horiatiki in Greece, he says, he "just fell in love with it. It's very, very original. No crazy things. Vine-ripened tomatoes that just explode in the mouth. Pow!"
Whatever grows on a vine grows well on Greek soil. So it's natural that vine-grown produce goes into perhaps the most iconic of all Greek dishes: juicy red tomatoes, cucumbers, and green peppers. The other ingredients derive directly from the national diet, with small variations by region: red onion, sheep's milk feta, sea salt, olive oil and olives, and pungent Greek dried oregano (in a country that's 80 percent mountains, herbs like oregano sprout everywhere from rocky crannies). In the south, the salad could include pickled caper buds and leaves, and possibly a little purslane – a hardy, spindly succulent with a delicious watercress-like flavor; often mistaken for a weed, it's considered one of the most nutritious foods on the planet.
Abrahante accents his tomatoes, cucumbers, green peppers, and red onions with slices of Dodoni sheep's milk feta from northwestern Greece and a medley of Greek olives – large black Kalamata, cracked green (tsakistes), small black salt cured (throumbes) – from various regions. "Each origin has its own taste," he says. He sprinkles on olive oil from the Greek island of Crete, Greek vinegar, Greek sea salt, and wild Greek oregano that's shaken off a dried branch of the plant and astounds his customers with its intensity. "There is absolutely no lettuce, no romaine," he says. That's right; there is no lettuce in a real Greek salad.
An authentic Greek salad is clean and elemental, what you’d get at a small Aegean taverna overlooking a sunny bay. Or what a middle-class family in Athens might eat with mezedakia (small appetizers) before the main course. (Not the sloppy versions in most U.S. restaurants.) You could eat it as a light main course, or as the star side dish of an outdoor buffet. To assemble an authentic Greek salad, follow these directions. Greek food is very specific, so if you add something (like lettuce), don't call it a horiatiki or a Greek salad. You've probably made just another salad.
Authentic Greek Salad (Horiatiki Salata)
(Serves 4 as a main course, 6–8 as an appetizer or side dish)
2 large, 4 medium, or 8–10 small juicy, vine-ripened tomatoes
1 large seedless cucumber, peeled
1 large green pepper, seeds and spines removed
1 large red onion, peeled
Greek dried oregano, or other high-quality dried oregano
Optional: a handful of purslane, each stem cut in half
1 cup (about 20) mixed Greek olives, pit in
Greek extra-virgin olive oil
Red wine vinegar
3–4 slabs good Greek feta
Optional: 2–3 tbsp caper buds
Optional: 4–6 pickled pepperoncini
- Cut tomatoes in quarters and remove core. Cut into bite-size wedges.
- Slice cucumber.
- Cut green pepper in half lengthwise, and cut long, relatively thin slices (or leave intact and cut rings).
- Cut onion in half, tip to tip. Lay halves cut side down and starting at one tip, cut relatively thin slices from both halves.
- Place all into a clean bowl. Sprinkle generously with dried oregano and sea salt.
- Using your (clean) hands, carefully mix everything, and set aside for about 10 minutes to allow flavors to marry.
- Meanwhile, cut feta into slabs that are about 1/4 inch thick and about 3 inches wide by 4 inches long. Do not crumble the feta or cut in little cubes. Set cheese aside.
Before serving, add purslane and olives (if desired, wash olives and coat in a fresh vinaigrette with lemon zest and oregano), and toss. Turn salad out into a big shallow bowl or onto a platter.
Drizzle high-quality olive oil and red wine vinegar over all. Place feta slabs on top of salad: side by side or end to end, depending on shape of serving dish. Drizzle feta with a little olive oil, and sprinkle with oregano. Serve immediately with plenty of crusty bread to dip in the juices, known as making a papara. If serving as a meal, pair it with an astringent white wine.
Optional ingredients: You can also scatter caper buds and/or caper leaves over the top of salad and feta. And, if you wish, distribute pepperoncini evenly on the salad.