Greek salad is desert-island food for me – so essentially comforting and nourishing I would gladly eat it for the rest of my hot and solitary days. With the cool green crispness of cucumber, the warm red juiciness of tomato, the dark glossy brininess of olive, and the bright white softness of feta cheese, Greek salad is as pleasing on the eyes as its crunchy goodness is on the palate.
If you’re looking for a good salad for a Labor Day cookout, this is it: it keeps well at room temperature without the wilting of leafy salads, and it makes an especially wonderful accompaniment to anything off the grill.
I love salads, but sometimes I need a break from lettuce, if only because I get tired of washing my salad spinner. For Greek salad, I rinse off my veggies and get out my knife for some therapeutic chopping-board meditation. And dressing the salad is so easy – Greek salad isn’t so much dressed as it is marinated in olive oil and a squeeze of lemon or a splash of red wine vinegar, with a good seasoning of salt, pepper and oregano.
I really need to go to Greece – the land of feta cheese is the place for me. My lovely Greek friend Alyssa (who grew up in Taiwan and – embarrassingly for me – speaks better Chinese than I do) says that early fall is the best time to go – no crowds and water warmed from a long summer in the sun. When September comes I dream about blue waters and whitewashed buildings hugging high hillsides.
In the meantime, I’ve had some wonderful food with Alyssa in the Greek-American enclave of Astoria, in the New York City borough of Queens. But there’s also a vibrant Greek community in my current home of Columbus, Ohio (the annual Greek festival is Labor Day weekend) and this summer in California I discovered Opa, a South Bay chain of Greek restaurants with locations in Willow Glen and Los Gatos that recently opened a new outpost in my hometown of Los Altos.
The older I get, the more I find restaurant food disappointing – too salty, too rich. To me the ultimate in good food is good home cooking, made by someone who not only cares about the taste of the food but the health of the diner. In a refreshing surprise, I found much of the food at Opa to be like great home cooking: fresh, flavorful and simple. And in good news for my East Bay friends, I see they’re soon to open another restaurant in Walnut Creek. Their Greek salad is classic, like this, though restaurants always load up Greek salad with onions as filler.
Greek salad is one dish that’s easy to make restaurant-quality at home. The key, as always, is to have good, fresh ingredients.
It all starts with the cucumber. My favorite are the small Persian cucumbers, with thin skins, fine flavor and snappy crunch. More widely available are the long, usually shrink-wrapped English cucumbers, which like the Persian cucumbers don’t require peeling or seeding. If you use regular cucumbers, you’ll just want to peel them and use a spoon to remove the seeds, which can be large.
In a chopped salad, it’s nice to have all the ingredients roughly the same size. I like to quarter my cucumbers lengthwise and chop into bite-sized dice.
I was making a double batch here for 10 adults and two teenagers (eight younger kids were irrelevant to salad making).
Bell pepper next – the green ones are not as sweet as the red, orange or yellow ones. It’s only in recent years that I figured out it’s much easier to cut the pepper around the core, not through it, so the little seeds don’t get everywhere.
Cut each piece into strips and the strips into bite-sized dice.
Add to salad bowl.
Now tomatoes. I like the small, sweet grape tomatoes, which hold together better in the salad than cut large tomatoes. But you really cannot go wrong with any summer tomatoes.
I didn’t used diced onion this time, because I don’t like the way raw onions linger. When I do use onion, I like to let it sit in some scalding-hot water first to take off some of the bite – it’s sort of a pre-cook that still retains the texture and crunch of raw.
A good dose of olive oil and a generous sprinkling of salt, pepper and oregano.
Finally a squeeze of sunshiny lemon. Red wine vinegar is a great substitute if you don’t have lemon.
Taste and adjust seasonings as necessary. Take a moment to enjoy the colors.
I forgot to add the olives. Halve some nice firm kalamatas.
I added the olives with the feta, the final step. Mix gently so the cheese doesn’t get too mashed up.
Greek salad is hardy enough to make ahead, and it keeps well overnight…if you have any left over. Enjoy!
This classic no-lettuce salad is a crunchy delight anytime, but it’s especially good made with summer tomatoes and served alongside something yummy from the grill.
- 1 large English cucumber (aka seedless or hothouse – the shrink-wrapped kind)
- 1 bell pepper (red/orange/yellow are sweeter than green)
- 1/2 small onion, optional
- 1 pint grape tomatoes
- 1/4 cup kalamata olives
- 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt (start with 1/4 teaspoon if using table salt)
- 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
- 1/2 lemon OR 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
- 3-4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1/4-1/2 cup crumbled feta
- Chop cucumber into bite-sized pieces (I cut ends off and quarter lengthwise into four long sticks; then chop each into 1/2-inch pieces). Place in large bowl.
- Chop bell pepper into bite-sized pieces (I find it easiest to cut the sides of the pepper around the core like an apple; then cut each side into 1/2-inch strips and strips into 3/4-inch pieces). Add to bowl.
- Dice onion, if using. To take the bite off the raw onion, put diced onion in a small bowl and pour a cup of very hot water over. Let sit for a few minutes, then drain and add to salad bowl.
- Halve tomatoes and add to bowl.
- Halve kalamata olives and add to bowl.
- Add salt, pepper, oregano, lemon juice (or vinegar) and olive oil to the vegetables. Mix well; taste and adjust seasonings as necessary.
- Add feta and mix gently. Serve.
Makes four generous or eight small servings.
- Hardier than leafy salads, this keeps well if made a couple of hours ahead of time (keep at room temperature or refrigerate). Refrigerated leftovers are not as fresh but still good the next day.
- If you use regular cucumbers instead of English, peel the cucumbers first, cut in half and use a spoon to scoop out seeds.
- You can of course substitute any tomatoes for the small grape ones listed. I like the grape tomatoes because they hold together better in the salad and are more consistently flavorful. But in the summer any ripe tomatoes will work well.
Here’s the link to a printable version.