I’ve been to Greece once, on a family trip one long-ago summer. I was a distracted teenager then, and even though I enjoyed it I was also counting the days till I was back on the beach in Italy with my friends, so my memory of the trip is sketchy. But a few details still stand out.
There was the bakery we made a quick stop at on our way to the Acropolis, a small shop that you had to step down into, its display cases filled with flaky diamonds of baklava and every other type of filo dough pastry imaginable. I want to say the place smelled like honey and butter. Did it? I think so, but it’s hard to say for sure. I do know it was crowded so Dad decided we should proceed to our destination and stop on the way back, which we did and ~ of course! ~ it was closed. (Yes, it still rankles.)
There was the night sky at Delphi, a sky so full of shimmering stars that you half expected them to start raining down upon you like fireworks sparks.
There was the pizza, more flatbread than pizza, topped with with thinly sliced ripe tomatoes.
And there was the salad, absent of any lettuce but packed with the color and crunch of peppers, red onions, and cucumbers, tangy olives, and creamy white feta. In fact, the salads in Greece were as far as you could get from the harsh, oil-drenched “Greek” salads served in so many U.S. diners, with their assault of dried oregano and dry crumbles of feta (the flavor of which has more in common with feet than cheese, it must be said).
It would be years before I came across a recipe that did justice to the salads I remember from that trip. It’s from Anna Thomas’s classic book, “The New Vegetarian Epicure.” I make it every summer, when peppers and cukes and tomatoes are at their peak, and even the red onions from the farmers’ market are crisp and juicy. It’s a great make-ahead salad for cookouts and summer potlucks.
Incidentally, while I was la-di-dahing in Italy and Greece all those years ago, my future husband was manning the grill at a Greek-style tavern in southwestern Michigan. The owner ~ who was Greek ~ offered two salads on the menu. One was the classic Greek-American salad with lettuce, and the other, with no lettuce, he called Greek Village Salad; hence my name for this recipe.
P.S. I adore Greek food but it is not my specialty. For delicious, authentic Greek recipes I like these blogs: Marilena’s Kitchen, Mulberry and Pomegranate, and My Little Expat Kitchen. And here’s a link to the website of Greek food writer/author Aglaia Kremezi, author of “Mediterranean Vegetarian Feasts.”
This is the salad I enjoyed years ago on a family trip to Greece. What distinguishes it from typical Greek-style diner salads is the abundance of fresh summer vegetables and the absence of lettuce ~ and bad feta. To do this salad justice, make it in mid- to late-summer, when peppers, cukes, and tomatoes are at their best. Use small Persian cucumbers or long English ones; and look for good imported Greek feta, which is creamy rather than dry and crumbly and which has an appealing tangy and briny flavor. This recipe is adapted from The New Vegetarian Epicure, by Anna Thomas (Knopf, 1997).
- 1 large cucumber or 2 smaller Persian cucumbers
- 1 fennel bulb, plus a small handful of fronds
- 1 large red pepper
- 1 large yellow pepper
- 1/2 red onion
- 2 medium tomatoes, or 1 cup cherry tomatoes
- 15 to 20 Kalamata olives
- 15 to 20 green olives
- Handful of fresh dill sprigs
- Handful of fresh mint leaves
- 1 teaspoon chopped fresh oregano
- 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 tablespoons red or white wine vinegar
- 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Sea salt
- 12 ounces Greek feta cheese
Peel the cucumbers ~ I usually peel in strips, leaving some of the peel on to create a striped effect. Cut them in half lengthwise and scrape out the seeds. Slice the halves crosswise into bite-size pieces.
Trim and quarter the fennel bulb, setting aside some fronds. Remove the core from the quarters and slice them thinly. Trim and core the peppers and slice into thin strips. Slice the onion into thin half-moons. Cut the tomatoes into thin wedges. If using cherry tomatoes, cut them in half. Coarsely chop the dill, mint, oregano, and reserved fennel fronds. Combine the vegetables and olives in a large bowl and scatter the herbs on top.
Whisk together the oil and vinegars in a small bowl. Grind in some pepper and whisk in 1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste. Pour the dressing over the salad and toss gently. Crumble 2/3 of the feta over the salad and toss again.
Arrange the salad on a deep platter or shallow serving bowl and scatter the remaining feta cheese on top. Serve shortly after mixing (see NOTE).
Don't wait too long to serve the salad once it's dressed, as the salt will cause the cucumbers to weep and become watery. If you want to make it in advance, which I often do, prep all the vegetables and herbs but wait until serving time to add the feta cheese and dressing.