The new Greek salad offers up new flavors

Straying from classic recipe may vex purists but new flavor combinations make classic salad more than a salad

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The Greek salad is a pretty simple affair that represents Mediterranean cuisine at its best. Healthful, refreshing and balanced, every bite of what the Greeks call "horiatiki salata" invites a sensation — be it the saltiness of the olives and feta cheese, the sweetness and acid of the tomatoes, the bite of the onions, the richness of olive oil or the herbaceousness of Greek oregano. Add to that the vibrancy of the ingredients' colors, the contrasting textures and the fact that the salad requires so little to put together, and the sum total is unfettered satisfaction.

As would be the case with a dish that no doubt was made in ancient times, opinions run strong about which deviations from the basic recipe are allowable.

Even the olives can be a non-starter.

"It was forced into my head from an early age by my father's father, who was from Kalamos, that a horiatiki salad was only tomato, cucumber, white onion, olive oil, feta cheese, salt and really good oregano," says chef John Manolatos of Cashion's Eat Place in Washington. "No additional acid at all, no peppers and definitely no olives. That was a bastardization."

Manolatos pretty much adheres to that. In the summer, he combines heirloom tomatoes at their peak with fresh oregano, Dodoni feta cheese and Lakonian extra-virgin olive oil made from kalamata olives, the kind often found in horiatiki iterations.

Dodoni brand feta, made from ewe's and goat's milk in the Epirus region of northwestern Greece, has a pleasant tang and a less-chalky texture than does the cow's-milk feta prevalent in American grocery stores. Per Greek law and the European Union, only cheese made in Greece from 70 percent sheep's milk and 30 percent goat's milk can be called feta. (It's the same sort of protection awarded to Roquefort cheese, though the feta designation doesn't extend to the United States. And what is called Bulgarian feta, for example, is made from sheep's milk and yogurt culture, which accounts for its shrill tang.)

As the feta is the crowning glory of a Greek salad, its quality makes all the difference.

The Greek version of panzanella, the Dakos salad, hails from Crete. That salad is made by dressing tomatoes, black olives, oregano and capers or caper berries with olive oil and piling them on top of dried barley bread to absorb juices.

Because the Greek salad is my favorite, I don't limit myself to making it in summer. I know it's sacrilegious to some food folk to use tomatoes out of season, but I've found certain greenhouse-grown varieties, such Kumato and Campari, to be juicy, flavorful and perfectly acceptable, provided their thick skins are removed.

In my take on the Dakos salad, I use Camparis, pureeing a couple of them to use as soaking liquid for toasted ciabatta bread slices that anchor the dish. As flavor enhancements, I throw in dill and scallions.

I have a laissez-faire attitude toward horiatiki. I use small, organic pickling cucumbers, mini seedless cucumbers or English cucumbers because they don't need to be peeled and are less watery than regular cucumbers. I like to include red and daikon radishes, some avocado if I have one on hand and slices of jalapeño to inject heat. Others like to add bell or peperoncini peppers and capers.

As noted before, the traditional horiatiki doesn't call for vinegar, but I like red wine vinegar's extra touch of acid in the mix.

Two ingredients, in my opinion, are vital to any version of Greek salad: dried Greek oregano and Greek olive oil. If you place Greek oregano next to generic oregano or what's called "Mediterranean oregano," you'll notice that the Greek is darker and finer. It has a more pungent, earthier flavor than the others, which have a touch of marjoram sweetness to them. Greek olive oil (high-quality, of course), to me, is greener, sweeter and more luxuriant than many Italian or Spanish ones I've tried.

While performing my Greek salad experiments, I used the horiatiki profile to fashion an intensely flavored salsa as an accompaniment to grilled fish or seafood. I cut the cucumber into small, neat squares, tossed them with semi-dried cherry tomatoes in oil (a great find at Whole Foods Market), feta cubes, cured black olives and preserved lemon bits. Spread on labneh cheese and served with pita triangles, the salsa transformed into a meze.

Greek Salsa Meze

Servings: 4

Semi-dried cherry tomatoes packed in oil make a great addition to this salsa. You can buy labneh at Mediterranean markets, or you can make your own. To dry fresh cherry tomatoes, cut each in half, spread them on a lined baking sheet, season them with salt and bake at 200 F for 30 to 40 minutes. To make labneh, place Greek-style yogurt in a cheesecloth-lined strainer and let it drain at room temperature for 8 hours.

2 mini cucumbers (seeded) or half an English (seedless) cucumber, cut into ¼-inch cubes (unpeeled)

½ cup semi-dried cherry tomatoes packed in oil, drained

½ cup cured pitted black olives, coarsely chopped

¼ cup minced red onion

1 teaspoon minced preserved lemon (optional)

1 teaspoon dried Greek oregano

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

2 tablespoons Greek olive oil, plus more for drizzling

One 3-ounce piece feta cheese, cut into ½-inch cubes

1 cup homemade or store-bought labneh

Warm pita triangles or pita chips, for serving

Combine the cucumbers, tomatoes, olives, onion, preserved lemon, if using, the oregano, lemon juice, the 2 tablespoons of oil and the feta cheese in a medium bowl.

Spread ¼ cup of labneh on each plate, then spoon the salsa over it. Drizzle with oil and serve with pita bread or chips.

Almost Classic Horiatiki

Servings: 6

To peel and seed tomatoes, bring a medium saucepan of water to a boil. Have ready a bowl of ice water. Cut an “X” in the bottom of each tomato and remove the stem. Working with one at a time, place the tomato in the boiling water for 15 seconds. Use a slotted spoon to quickly transfer it to the ice water. The skin should slip off.

2 pounds Campari or Kumato tomatoes, peeled, hulled and cut into 2-inch pieces

4 mini cucumbers (seeded) or 1 English (seedless) cucumber, cut into 1-inch pieces

½ small red onion, cut into thin slices

½ small daikon radish, peeled and cubed

10 red radishes, trimmed and cut into quarters

½ small jalapeño pepper, seeded, if desired, cut crosswise into thin slices

1 cup pitted kalamata olives or other Greek olive

½ teaspoon kosher salt

2 teaspoons red wine vinegar

1 teaspoon dried Greek oregano

½ cup Greek olive oil

One 8-ounce block feta cheese, cut into 6 equal slices

Combine the tomatoes, cucumbers, onion, daikon and red radishes, jalapeño, olives, salt, vinegar, ½ teaspoon of the oregano and ¼ cup of the oil in a large bowl. Toss to coat evenly and incorporate. Divide evenly among individual plates. Top each portion with a slice of feta. Sprinkle the cheese with the remaining oregano and drizzle with the remaining oil.

Dakos Salad

Servings: 6

This is a Cretan salad similar to Italy’s panzanella. A hard rusk made from barley flour is softened slightly with water, then piled with tomatoes, oregano, olives, olive oil and feta or mizithra cheese. Capers or caper berries are often added as well. It’s best to make this salad just before serving, although the bread could be toasted in advance. To peel tomatoes, use a sharp knife to score a shallow “X” on the bottoms. Drop the tomatoes into a pot of boiling water; leave them there just long enough for the skins to start to separate and curl. Transfer to a bowl of cold water. When the tomatoes are cool enough to handle, peel and discard the skins.

6 slices ciabatta bread

2 pounds Campari tomatoes, peeled, hulled and cut into 1-inch pieces

Pinch kosher salt

4 teaspoons capers, rinsed and drained

¾ cup pitted kalamata olives

2 teaspoons red wine vinegar

½ cup chopped scallions (white and light-green parts)

¼ cup chopped dill

¼ cup Greek olive oil, plus more for drizzling

2 teaspoons dried Greek oregano

8 ounces feta cheese, crumbled

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Place the bread on a baking sheet and toast it until crisp, about 25 minutes. Place one slice on each serving plate and let cool.

Combine ¾ cup of the tomatoes and the salt in a food processor; puree until smooth. Spoon the pureed tomato over each piece of toasted bread.

Combine the remaining tomatoes, capers, olives, vinegar, scallions, dill, oil and oregano in a mixing bowl. Spoon the mixture over each piece of toast. Top with feta cheese and a drizzle of oil.

Serve right away.

Greek Salad Salad

Servings: 6

This is a sophisticated presentation of a Greek salad based on chef Michel Richard’s concept of a Caesar salad rolled and presented in this manner. To make labneh, place Greek-style yogurt in a cheesecloth-lined strainer and let it drain at room temperature for 8 hours. Or it’s available at larger grocery stores and at Mediterranean markets. Make ahead: The salad needs to be rolled 6 hours ahead of time. Adapted from a recipe by chef Michel Richard.

1 English (seedless, unpeeled) cucumber, cut into ¼-inch dice

¼ cup minced red onion

1 teaspoon kosher salt

2 heads romaine lettuce, very dark green outer leaves removed (about 24 leaves, plus small inner leaves)

½ cup labneh

8 ounces feta cheese, crumbled

1 clove garlic, crushed

1 cup oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes, drained and chopped

½ cup pitted green or black Greek olives

1 teaspoon dried Greek oregano

½ teaspoon black pepper

Greek olive oil, for drizzling

Combine the cucumbers, onion and salt in a strainer set over a bowl, then let them drain for 30 minutes.

Trim the tops of the romaine heads so the leaves have a flat edge. Discard the cores. Separate the leaves, wash them and dry them in a salad spinner. Lay the leaves flat on paper towels to blot them completely dry. (Damp leaves can make the salad soggy.)

Combine the labneh, 1 cup of feta and the garlic in a food processor; puree until smooth. Transfer the mixture to a bowl. Transfer the cucumbers and onion to a towel and gently squeeze out excess moisture. Stir them into the labneh.

Combine the tomatoes and olives in a small bowl.

Lay 36-inch lengths of plastic wrap on a clean work surface, overlapping horizontally to form a 3-foot square. Starting 3 inches in from the edge of the plastic wrap closest to you, form a 6-inch-by-4-inch rectangle with the romaine, overlapping the leaves a bit. Top randomly with any small inner leaves left over.

Spoon two parallel, horizontal rows of cucumber mixture onto romaine. Spread a row of tomatoes and olives below each row of cucumber mixture. Sprinkle with oregano and pepper.

Starting at the side closest to you, roll the lettuce leaves over themselves and into a cylinder; use some of the wrap to facilitate the rolling. Do not let the plastic to get caught in the roll. Once a cylinder is formed, fold the piece of wrap that’s closest to you over it to cover completely. Press out as much air as possible. Twist the ends to tighten. Refrigerate for 6 hours.

To serve, use a sharp knife to cut 12 slices through the plastic wrap, forming salad medallions, then place two on each plate. Cut and remove the bands of plastic wrap. Garnish each portion with a bit of feta and a drizzle of oil.

Per serving: 160 calories, 10g fat, 5g saturated fat, 25mg cholesterol, 780mg sodium, 14g carbohydrates, 4g dietary fiber, 5g sugar, 7g protein.