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 Adams Morgan. “No [additional] acid at all, no peppers and definitely no olives. That was a bastardization.”
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. (The oil and the cheese are available at AM Wine Shoppe on 18th Street NW, affiliated with Cashion’s.)
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. (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. For the Neighborhood Restaurant Group’s forthcoming Dupont Circle restaurant Iron Gate, a rebirth of the long-beloved Iron Gate Inn, chef Tony Chittum is crafting his own feta cheese from pasteurized goat’s milk he gets from Trickling Springs Creamery and Bounty Hill Farms. When he posted pictures of it brining (he’s testing flavor differences among batches aged for five, six, seven, eight and nine weeks), I fantasized about indulging in a chunky salad covered with those bright, white curds.
Chittum, whose wife is Greek, also has been learning how to make phyllo dough and loukaniko (sausage) and devising interpretations of gyros and souvlaki. That falls in line with the trend of translating humble ethnic foods into the lexicon of hipness. At Johnny Monis’s noted Komi, a Greek-inspired multi-course dinner for two can easily cost $500.
The Greek revival, started by Jose Andres 10 years ago with the opening of Zaytinya, continues to proliferate. Celebrity chef Mike Isabella, who was chef de cuisine at Zaytinya for many years, is readying Kapnos in the 14th Street corridor. The Greek-themed restaurant will feature spit-roasted meats and small plates that he researched on a trip to northern Greece.
Marjorie Meek-Bradley, who worked for Isabella at Graffiato and is the new chef at Ripple in Cleveland Park, has started infusing her menu with Greek influences, such as a mezzethakia of roasted beets with labneh (Greek yogurt strained through cheesecloth into a creamy consistency), smoked egg yolk and radishes.
Both chefs are big fans of the Greek salad and will feature some version of it on their summer menus. Isabella’s will include roasted and grilled vegetables. Meek-Bradley favors a cross between an Italian panzanella and a Greek salad, frying bread with garlic and thyme and tossing it in with a traditional Greek salad.
The Greek version of panzanella, the Dakos salad, hails from Crete and is a favorite of Chittum’s. 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. Though he strives to source locally, Chittum will probably use capers he gets via his wife’s family in Syros, where the buds grow prolifically. Says Chittum, “They’re the juiciest, fattest capers I’ve ever tasted.”
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 (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.
I call mine a Greek Salad Salad.
Hagedorn is a food writer and former chef. He recently co-authored “The New Jewish Table: Modern Seasonal Recipes for Traditional Dishes” with Todd Gray and Ellen Kassoff Gray (St. Martin’s Press).