Simple Pleasures.

Simple Pleasures.
Irish soda bread on its way up North with Noah.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Now....Some Good News from Greece

Greeks may not know how to manage their economy but they make one hell of a good cucumber and tomato salad. And it's only somewhat recently that I've learned why the "Greek salad" my decidedly nonGreek mom has always made tastes nothing like the ones I've devoured over in the land of Athena.

Thanks goes to my sister Jamie, who married a Greek guy and let me in on the secret a few years ago. Here it is: When her Greek friends and relatives make their horiatiki (as the salad is called), they DON'T use vinegar. Not one little drop. It may sound crazy to U.S. salad eaters, who can barely utter the word "oil" without attaching the words "and vinegar" when they are talking about dressing. But it's the god's honest truth. Instead, they rely on the ripest, juiciest, buxomest summer tomatoes to provide the perfect acid foil to the fruitiest, fullest extra virgin olive oil they can get their hands on. Then they top everything off with REAL feta....not the bland white crumbly stuff that tastes more like a pencil eraser than a piece of cheese. But good, gamey Greek (or French or Romanian) feta that actually tastes like it came from a warm, furry, grass-munching animal.

Mid-January, when tomatoes taste and feel like cotton batting and cucumbers are bitter and limp, is decidedly NOT the ideal time to make this salad, which hinges on peak-of-flavor ingredients. But right this minute absolutely is---you may even have your own bumper crop of cukes and tomatoes that you're wondering what the heck you'll do with. Or a green market in town that's more than happy to shower you with fresh-grown goods. Decent feta cheese is a little harder to come by: Sometimes I can find a fair rendition in the "fancy" cheese case at the local supermarket. Cheese shops are a far better bet. Surprisingly, I've also been able to pick up a tub of pretty good Greek-style feta at my local Costco. Pitted Kalamata olives are also relatively easy to find these days. If my pathetic A&P sells 'em bottled, chances are your supermarket does, too. Greeks also love to sprinkle in roughly chopped caper leaves, which are sold in little brine-filled bottles. I love these little things so much, they and a box of my favorite baklava were the only thing I asked my mom to bring back for me when she visited my sister last May. Be assured, your horiataki will survive very well without these little leaves. But if you are ever at International Foods behind the Port Authority in NYC or some other Greek speciality shop and espy little bottles of caper leaves, by all means grab a bottle. And snag one for me, too!

Here's the recipe. It's very loose--you can adjust the ratio of tomatoes, cukes, and peppers based on your personal preferences. My son Ben isn't a huge green pepper fan so I usually go lighter with them. Fresh oregano is a really nice touch but not a must. When I'm throwing together this salad for my family and I don't have any on hand or in my herb pot, I sprinkle on the dry and it's fine. The amounts I'm giving you here are what I use to serve my family of four. You can just up quantities if you are preparing horiataki for a crowd (which I do scarily often during the summer).

2-3 cucumbers, peeled, seeded, and cut into chunks

3-4 ripe, juicy, beautiful tomatoes, cut into chunks

1 or 2 green peppers, cut into chunks

1/2 cup pitted Kalamata olives (or to taste)

1 Tbs. (or more) capers

2 Tbs. fresh, chopped oregano or 1 scant tsp. dried (or to taste)

3-4 Tbs. (or to taste), fruity, yummy extra virgin olive oil (Greek olive oil is fantastic)

4 ounces excellent feta (or to taste)

salt and pepper to taste

Gently toss together the cukes, tomatoes, green pepper, and olives in a big, pretty bowl. Sprinkle on capers, then crumble feta over the top, and then sprinkle on the oregano and some generous grinds of pepper. If you are prepping in advance, you can stow the salad in the fridge at this point, but be sure to let it warm up to room temp before you serve it. If you aren't prepping too far in advance, keep your tomatoes, cukes, and peppers on the counter at room temp until you are ready to make the salad and serve the salad at room temp. The flavors sing so much more beautifully when the veggies aren't ice-box cold. Just before serving, drizzle salad with enough olive oil to moisten well, then salt to taste. Kali Orexi!