As I labored up rocky paths during our REI hiking trip to Greece’s Cycladic Islands, the glorious views kept me moving. And also the thought of my next meal.
After dropping our hiking poles and packs, we sat twice a day around a communal table at a taverna–almost always outdoors–and the dishes, served family style, started coming. Fish, lamb, artichoke pies, eggplant casseroles and delectable pastries, to give you an idea.
Our guides, Nefelina and Cristos, had arranged for the menus to change at every meal, providing a wonderful introduction to regional Greek cooking.
Salad was the exception. It showed up at every meal, but seemed more or less the same. Juicy tomatoes, cucumber, green pepper, onion: similar to what we call Greek salad at the U.S. but with some critical differences.
1. None of the shredded lettuce that abounds in American-style Greek salads. In fact, no greens at all.
2. Vegetables were cut in big chunks, to be addressed with knife and fork. Feta, rather than being crumbled, was sliced and laid on top.
3. The salads were lightly dressed with good olive oil, a few pinches of salt and perhaps a little lemon juice or wine vinegar–a welcome change from the vinegary, overly sweet or creamy dressings served in many Greek-American restaurants.
This combination went with everything and I never tired of it. Gradually I began to appreciate small differences. One taverna’s salad was seasoned with dried oregano, while another’s had fresh dill or a sprinkling of piquant capers, reminding us of the caper bushes we passed along the trails.
On the island of Tinos, we found crisp rusks among the tomatoes and cucumbers, a combination that made me think of the Tuscan bread salad called panzanella.
A Naxos Town taverna put potatoes in its salad, an addition I loved.
And, on Santorini, my final salad was made with a cucumber variety prized for its firmness and sweetness. “Let it ripen a little and it will taste almost like melon,” promised the restaurant owner, pressing a large cucumber into my hands.
I couldn’t say no, and it’s just as well. Ten days later, after two flights and a train ride, I made panzanella in Italy with my Greek cucumber.
- 1 large potato, peeled
- 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
- 1 large tomato
- 1 medium cucumber
- 1 small green pepper, cored and seeded
- several red onion slices
- 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
- Juice of 1 small lemon
- sea salt
- freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 cup kalamata or other Greek olives
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh dill or several pinches dried oregano
- 2 to 4 ounces feta in a block
Cut potato in large chunks. Place in a small saucepan, cover with water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until just tender. Drain, return to pan and sprinkle with vinegar. Cool.
Cut tomato, cucumber and green pepper in large chunks. Combine in a large bowl with potato and onion slices. Add olive oil. Toss gently. Add lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste. Toss again.
Pile the salad on a platter. Sprinkle olives and dill over it. Cut feta in large slices and lay on top.