SUMMER days in Greece can be as hot and oppressive as those in Manila, except that the Greek ones are drier and shorter in duration. Here in the tropics summer is hot, humid, sweat-inducing, and feels like forever.
Another difference with Greeks is apparent in their food choices. When it heats up, they eat more salads. By salads, I mean a big plate of leafy greens and other raw, fresh vegetables with a citrusy dressing of lemon juice or wine vinegar, emulsified with extra-virgin olive oil.
The Greeks eat salads like these in almost every meal, and one will get huge side salads even when ordering in quick-service restaurants. This is a culinary practice I enjoyed immensely during my five-year stay in the country, and one that I miss most since coming back home and realizing that fresh salads are a rarity in most Filipino party buffets.
The idea is that the fresh greens will cool down your body and mind. They’re mostly water, but they’re also filled with vitamins and minerals that will fortify the body against disease. The nutrients also come in a form that the body can easily absorb (unlike manufactured supplements), and for those trying to restrict their calorie intake, the dietary fiber in vegetables adds to a feeling of fullness.
The Greeks have a fantastic salad and vegetable repertoire–not surprising for a country whose cuisine is a model for the cardio-protective Mediterranean diet.
Greek tavernas will always have the basic marouli or lettuce salad, finely chopped with hints of dill and tossed in olive oil and lemon juice. Upscale bistros will have a roka (arugula) salad, usually served with sweet red tomatoes, chunks of Parmesan cheese, and a simple balsamic and olive oil dressing.
Of course, there’s always the horiatiki salata (village salad) which you can find almost anywhere in Greece. Its ingredients are the ones you use for any basic garden salad except that you have to add kalamata olives, feta cheese, and oregano, to make it Greek.
This salad is quite easy to replicate in Manila. Most of the chore lies in the washing and chopping, and you can do this in increments like I do (wash the lettuce first, store in the fridge, and do the rest later).
Use either loose-leaf or romaine lettuce for your salad base. These shouldn’t be too expensive nowadays, and they’re quite easy to grow, too, if you want to have your own organic produce.
The make or break for me is having red Kalamata olives. I can live with using the Danish white feta cheese, but I must have those Greek olives. You can source fresh Kalamata olives from Santi’s Deli, or buy the authentic ones that are canned or bottled from top supermarkets.
2 bunches of lettuce
2 pieces salad tomatoes, or a handful of cherry tomatoes
2 Japanese cucumber
1 medium-size green bell pepper
1 small red onion
1/2 cup red Kalamata olives
Feta cheese, cut into cubes
Red wine vinegar
Extra-virgin olive oil
Sugar, salt, and pepper, to taste
1. Wash the lettuce leaves, drain on a colander, or better, invest in a salad spinner to get drier leaves. Place the lettuce in a container and leave to chill inside the refrigerator to make them crispier. Cut the leaves only when ready to prepare the salad.
2. Slice the tomatoes into four large pieces, or if using cherry tomatoes cut in half.
3. Trim the ends of the Japanese cucumber and slice into circles. If you cannot find these slender Japanese cucumbers, you can use the local ones but make sure to peel, and cut to remove the soft seed parts in the middle. You don’t want a watery salad. Slice further into half-moons.
4. Cut bell pepper into strips.
5. Peel the onion and slice into rings. Use only a few rings for I find local red onions to be too strong even with the classic Greek trick of marinating them in red wine vinegar before use in a salad.
6. For the salad dressing, pour into a bowl 1/4 cup of red wine vinegar, 1/2 cup of extra virgin olive oil, and whisk thoroughly. Add sugar, salt, and pepper to taste, and whisk again.
7. Using a small lettuce leaf, taste your salad dressing a few times to adjust and ensure a good balance of acid and oil. Place some of the sliced onions into the dressing to reduce their sharp taste.
8. To serve, get a large salad bowl or plate. Place the cut lettuce first, then add the tomatoes, cucumber, bell pepper, red onion, feta cheese, and Kalamata olives.
Sprinkle dried oregano over the top, and drizzle the dressing around. Toss and serve at once, with crusty bread on the side.