Also called Greek Village Salad or Xoriatiki
By Nicholas Stefanelli
Real Greek food, like the best Italian food is about bringing together a few great ingredients in a way that produces an outcome that transcends the seeming simplicity of the dish. This recipe will have way more description in terms of secrets and traditions than you are used to for something so “simple”. That little bit of extra reading will make your friends and dinner guests wonder why your salad is better than absolutely every other Greek Salad they have ever had, and you will seem more like a magician than a cook.
Common myths about Greek Salad. If you see these things at a restaurant or in a recipe run for the hills.
Myth #1: A Greek Village Salad is made with vinegar
Myth #2: A Greek Village Salad is made with some kind of lettuce
Myth #3: Simply adding feta cheese to a salad makes it a Greek Salad
2 large, ripe tomatoes
2 small to medium sized cucumbers
1 yellow banana pepper, sweet or spicy if you prefer
½ small red onion
1 large wedge of Greek Feta cheese
1 handful of Greek Kalamata Olives - with pits
2 to 4 pinches of Mediterranean sea salt
2 to 4 pinches of Greek Oregano
1 to 8 Tbsp Greek Extra Virgin Olive Oil (more on the amount later)
Use ripe Beefsteak or Heirloom tomatoes like Cherokees. Nothing comes close to a vine-ripened tomato from the garden. Second-best is your local farmers market. If you use store-bought tomatoes, try to find local ones and make sure to ripen them so they are just starting to get soft.
Don’t be afraid to use smaller cucumbers, even the pickling cucumbers from your farmers market. Smaller is often tastier, so you can use more, small cucumbers instead of a large one.
Bell peppers can overpower a dish with their flavor and you can ruin the flavor of the perfect tomatoes you worked so hard to find. Even though you often see green bell peppers in a recipe like this, use them sparingly and only as a backup, or even leave them out entirely. Don’t even think about using red or yellow bell peppers. Yellow banana peppers are ideal, and if you want a bit of a kick, you can use the spicy variety or the hungarian ones. These should be all fresh and crispy of course. Throwing in a pickled, spicy banana pepper that you often see at “traditional” Greek restaurants does not make it a Greek salad either.
Use Greek feta if you can find it. The best feta has sheep and goat milk in it. We have even used a local Feta cheese by a goat farmer in the area who sells in a DC farmer’s market with surprisingly good results. You can often find good feta in Greek or some middle eastern markets. If they have “barrel feta” in brine, buy it and ask them to package it with the brine. It keeps well and is a whole different experience than the vacuum-packed stuff at the usual supermarket.
Greek black olives with the pits in taste the best. Usually they are packaged in brine, and if you are lucky, some Greek red wine vinegar. Kalamata is the standard, but we’ve been lucky enough to have some in the mountain villages that are simply better. Ancient Foods is working on sourcing those as well. We sometimes like the cracked Greek green ones in lemon, if you can find them.
Salts have distinctive flavors, and it’s one of those ingredients you want to keep close to the region of the recipe you are producing. We only use Mediterranean sea salt. Salting the tomato chunks in this recipe is by far the most important step, so don’t skimp on the salt.
The best organo is Greek, and comes from the mountains in the Peloponnese, like Mount Taygetos. You can taste the difference and Ancient Foods sells it.
Use Ancient Foods Greek olive oil. My favorite part of eating this salad is dunking the bread in the tomato juice and olive oil mixture that ends up at the bottom of the bowl. You can’t really add too much olive oil if you sop that mixture all up in the end with some great bread. I usually pour until I am sure there is at least an inch of oil at the bottom of the bowl when the salad is in there. Greeks use more olive oil by far than others and it’s a key part of the Mediterranean diet.
- Find a nice round, deep bowl so the juices from the tomatoes can coalesce with the olive oil at the bottom. Cut the tomatoes in medium sized chunks at different angles as you make your way through the tomato. Don’t cut perfect wedges - you are trying to maximize cutting through the juicy parts randomly so you can extract that wonderful, ripe tomato juice so it flows to the bottom of that bowl.
- Liberally salt the tomato chunks as you go. When you have finished cutting the tomatoes, use a really big spoon to gently mix the tomatoes in the bowl so they are evenly salted, but not bruised. I usually let it sit a bit to allow the salt to extract the wonderful tomato juices.
- Peel the cucumbers, leaving thin strips of the peel lengthwise. It looks great, is healthy, and adds an additional dimension of flavor and texture. If the cucumbers are small, cut medium-thin disks. If it is a large cucumber, you can slice it down the middle so each piece is a half moon when you cut it. Just like in the best Italian cooking, the sizes of chunks matter and if you pay attention, you can adjust to what you like best after trying the salad. It’s all about being able to get a little bit of everything on your fork when you take a bite.
- Cut the banana pepper in thin little circles. If you are using a green bell pepper, cut small thin strips - not too long. Do not cut full big rings of green bell pepper as you see in many recipes and restaurants. The poor hapless guest would have to cut it up themselves and undoubtedly forget to eat that piece with the rest of the ingredients on the fork.
- Cut thin slivers of the red onion onto the salad. I use, but cannot legally recommend, the “Greek Grandma” style of cutting, and they usually do it with everything. Your off-hand holds the onion. The hand with the knife has the knife edge facing you and you carve towards your palm, with your thumb bracing the other side of the onion. You need a small knife, like a flat paring knife. Greek grandmas have been known to use these small knives with plastic handles, which probably cost less than a euro. You can buy them in Greece and they use them to cut literally tons of fruits, vegetables and other things as they cook. It’s just one of those things you have to see for yourself when you travel off the beaten path in Greece and get a real home-cooked traditional meal away from the tourists.
- Crumble that big wedge of feta cheese on the salad. In Greece you often see the big wedge on top of the salad when it is served. Most unsuspecting tourists think they should just chip away at it and try to pierce the tomatoes underneath and that’s how it’s done. The real way to eat that salad in Greece requires a bit of prep work before digging in. You need to break apart the feta in chunks with your utensils, add salt to the tomatoes as best you can, and add more olive oil on top. Then mix, and voilà, you have a Greek salad. Or should I say Ópa!
- Sprinkle the Olives on top
- Sprinkle the oregano on top
- The last step involves adding the olive oil. You can leave the salad on your counter until you want to serve it before adding olive oil. Right before serving, add the olive oil, mix carefully, and serve. I don’t use the word “drizzle” for a reason - a proper Greek salad needs enough olive oil to facilitate dunking bread in the bottom of the bowl. If you are averse to family style bread dunking, make sure to have enough juice and oil mixture in the individual bowls to allow everyone to dunk. I received the nickname “Papara” in Greece on my travels, because I mastered the art of dunking fresh bread to soak up the wonderful juices and oil at the bottom of bowls or on my plate. I also enjoyed having the salad juice blend up with other sauces on my plate and wiping my bread through it all.