For the Best Greek Salad, Let Myth Be Your Guide, Not Your Master

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

Food changes. It changes over time, and it changes from place to place. To resist that is to resist what has led to all the food we love. There was no Greek salad, as we know it today, before tomatoes made their way from the Americas to Europe in the 16th century. And Greek salad itself has changed as a result of its journey farther from home. In the United States, you often find lettuce on the plate among the tomatoes and cucumbers, the feta cheese crumbled or cubed and mixed with everything else—two things most Greeks wouldn't recognize as belonging to a proper Greek salad. The challenge we all face is to decide where to draw the lines. What change is good, and what change is not?

Ultimately, this is a personal decision. My Greek salad doesn't have to look just like yours. It also doesn't need to look exactly like the ones in Greece; after all, the Greek salads there aren't all carbon copies of each other. Still, it helps to reflect on why the Greeks make Greek salads the way they do. Why do they serve the feta in slabs on top, and not broken down into small bits and tossed with everything else? Why is there no lettuce? Why is the oregano usually dried, the olives still full of pits, and the dressing made with vinegar and not lemon juice?

There's not always a good answer to every question. Like a parent who issues an exasperated Because! to a demanding child when no good answer is available, sometimes cooks retreat to similar defenses. Why is there no lettuce in a Greek salad? Because...that's not how it's done.

And sometimes, the answer is clear and strong. Why slabs of feta and not crumbles? Because feta has a salty intensity that has the potential to eventually make every bite a little too much. Because it's better to let the eater control how much feta to eat in each mouthful. Because it's a better study in contrasts: a nubbin of briny feta, then a refreshing palate cleanser of tomato, then a mix of all of them together—maybe a tender and sharp olive, followed by a cool and crisp cucumber.

My own version of the salad takes all of these questions into account, respecting some of the decisions dictated by tradition and breaking with others.

First: Mine has no lettuce. The Greek salad, in my mind, is like a Caprese salad, a celebration of tomatoes when they're at their peak. The other components are there to add interest in the form of texture and flavor. Lettuce, therefore, just acts as filler. When the tomatoes are good—and, as with a Caprese, you should be making this salad only when they are—the addition of lettuce doesn't offer much. If you want to improve the salad even more, look for a variety of tomatoes, in order to pack more colors, shapes, flavors, and textures into the salad.

Second: I keep my feta in large slabs. I've suffered through too many Greek salads that felt oppressive, as each successive bite became more and more of a chore, the feta screaming at me the whole time. Plus, serving it with slabs lets your guests know that you didn't buy some crappy pre-crumbled feta at the supermarket. This is, after all, a very simple salad, so the quality of all your ingredients matters here.

I'm less opinionated on which feta you should use. Most Greeks would probably insist that it has to be Greek feta, but I've eaten enough good feta from other producing countries, like Bulgaria and France, to know there's plenty out there to go around: some creamier, some crumblier, some saltier, some milder. Buy whichever good-quality feta appeals the most to your taste, wherever it's from.

For the olives, I break with tradition. A classic Greek salad usually comes with pit-in olives, but I'm a big believer in not making the diner do the pitting at the table. Understanding the context of the salad helps here. I was discussing it with a Greek friend of mine recently, and she reminded me that in Greece, you almost always eat a Greek salad at a taverna, where the tables are covered in paper, not cloth. That kind of casual dining setup means you can set your pits right on the table—it's better not to put the pits back on your plate, lest one roll back into the salad and end up breaking your tooth—and, since pit-in olives are often higher-quality than pre-pitted ones, that's how they're served. But at home, we can buy pit-in olives, remove those pits in the kitchen, and not deal with a table scattered with chewed pits later.

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Of all the ways to tame an onion's pungency, a quick soak in vinegar adds the most flavor to the final salad.

Onions are another area in which I break with tradition. Traditionally, they're incorporated raw. But I've always had a problem with raw onions in my food; I prefer to temper them one way or another. In testing this recipe, I tried a few ways: soaking them in ice water, soaking them in warm water, and giving them a red wine vinegar bath to rapidly pickle them. My preference was for the quick pickle, which tempers the onion's pungency just enough while working little bursts of acidity into each sliver. You can then use the vinegar in the salad, which imbues the whole thing with a subtle onion flavor.

Which brings me to the vinegar, the acid that completes this salad. I'm not sure why—I've been unable to find a good explanation—but for whatever reason, despite the popularity of lemons in Greek cuisine, they're just not the acid one reaches for when serving a Greek salad. Maybe it's because in the tavernas where it's sold, the salad often comes undressed with bottles of olive oil and vinegar on the side, allowing each diner to add each to their own taste. Since lemon juice degrades as it sits, it's a less practical option. Regardless, vinegar is the flavor that I've come to associate with Greek salad, so lemon is out.

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The final component is the herb, and here, once again, I'm siding with what is most traditional: dried oregano. This is one of those cases in which dried is arguably better. First, because oregano is a hearty, woodsy herb that handles drying well, remaining aromatic and flavorful in a way that delicate herbs, like parsley and basil, do not. And second, because its flavor when dried changes to something even woodsier, yet softer and more tame than it would be fresh.

The last step is serving it. Season the vegetables with salt and dried oregano, dress them with oil and vinegar, toss, then plate and serve, setting the feta on top. There's no need to pre-salt the vegetables here, as we do in so many other recipes to prevent them from growing watery as they sit. Adding salt at the last minute will draw out the tomato and cucumber juices, and when it comes to Greek salad, we want that good stuff on our plates. That's what the bread is for—sopping up all those juices. I doubt there's a Greek salad recipe in the world that wouldn't be improved by that.

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