What the heck is a Greek Salad anyway?

This year I’ve made a real effort to bring my lunch to work.  It generally isn’t anything very complicated and I alway try to keep the calories down.  Fruit with yogurt, leftover grilled chicken; you get the idea.  Trying to  add some variety the other day I decided to make a salad: mixed greens, tomato, olives, salonika peppers, no onion this time (it was for work after all), a wee bit of cheese, oil, and seasoning.  Straight forward, simple, relatively healthy, easy to eat out of a plastic container. Lunch Salad showing mixed greens, feta, olives, salonika peppers, oregano, black pepper The feta and oregano got my mind to wandering (not that it takes much for my mind to wander) – what makes a Greek salad “Greek”?  I know it’s a stupid question, the answer to which won’t be some earth-shattering revelation, yet I wanted to know and still do.  I see it on menus, I see “real Greek” dressing in the supermarket but what makes it “Greek”?  Is it the cheese, the olives?  Is it the use of oil and vinegar and oregano? Was it made by some “real Greek” holed away in the basement of some factory?  I really want to know.  Is it still a Greek salad if the oregano comes from Mexico or Italy? What if salad oil is used instead of olive oil?  And what about the feta?  My guess is that most restaurants use some american made feta-like cheese made from cow’s, not sheep’s, milk.  At what point does a “Greek” salad become just a salad?  I started to ramble on about this to my husband.  He decided the car windows needed to be cleaned and headed off to the garage.  He also doesn’t eat salad, or veggies in general, but that’s another story for another time.  Back to my salad conundrum.

I grew up in a Greek-American home.  My Father was from the Athens suburbs and my Mother, although of Greek heritage, was from that exotic locale known as the lower East Side of Manhattan (NYC, not Kansas).  Thus I cannot speak to all the different regions of Greece or their subtle salad nuances.  Still, I can’t remember ever having a Greek salad like those on menus here in the States.  My mother had two interpretations of a Greek salad:

1)  “green” salad – romaine lettuce cut into ribbons, seasoned with fresh dill, olive oil, salt and pepper.  She might add some scallions and maybe some wine vinegar.  Yup, that’s all it was.  It had dill so I avoided it at all costs as a child.  Incredibly I actually found that recipe in a greek cookbook one time.; and,

2)  “tomato” salad – tomatoes, feta, oregano, salt, pepper, and olive oil.  She might add some sliced onion, preferably red, and she might add cucumber.  She never added vinegar; tomatoes are already acidic.  Growing up this was my preferred salad at home.

These are also the salads I remember from my many trips to Greece, so you can see my confusion.  I love anchovies but remember those being served on the side, never in my salad.  The brined peppers?  Nope.  Same for olives.  All those things I remember being served as mezethes -small nibbles to eat with a drink before dinner.  I looked to the internet to find some sage’s guidance without luck.  Do you know what makes a Greek salad “Greek”?  Do Italians feel the same about “Italian” salads?  Do the French make “French” dressing?  Does any of this matter if it tastes good?  Probably not.

Oh, I just looked at my watch – it’s getting late and I haven’t had dinner.
I think I’ll make a Greek Salad.

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Tzatziki, food shopping and stuff

If there is one thing my husband and I will always have in common it’s that neither of us like to go shopping.  We’re buyers.  If we need something we go, we buy it and leave the store.  This also means we put off food shopping as long as humanly possible. We recently reached that point again – it was time for the dreaded trip to the supermarket.  The stores are so big in our area that it can take twenty minutes to get from the entrance to the dairy products without stopping along the way.   A list was needed if we were to get out of there the same day we went in.

I went through my usual routine for making a list (a list that would again be forgotten at home like those before it) checking the various nooks and crannies of the kitchen.  I looked in my spice and pantry cabinets.  Each was well stocked to the point that it might explode at any moment.  That left the refrigerator.  It’s always the refrigerator that taunts me.  First I checked the expiration dates and various bins – there’s always something to offer to the garbage gods – and then took inventory of what remained.  I saw yogurt, fresh dill (“fresh” always being a relative term in my fridge, but in this case actually fluffy and fresh), and garlic.  This brought to mind one of my favorite sides for grilled meats – tzatziki.  Of course I would need to get some cucumbers otherwise I was set.  My eyes kept going back to the dill.  Dill and I have always had an uneasy relationship.  It is a flavor that can go so quickly from non-existent to overpowering (at least to my palate).  Memories came back to me about otherwise wonderful dishes where the cook had a heavy dill hand; not pleasant.  Still the one memory that is clearer than any other – the infamous dill burger.  I often wonder if tzatziki could have saved the dill burger?  I guess we’ll never know.

What is tzatziki?

Tzatziki is a wonderful garlic and cucumber yogurt sauce often served in Greece.  Here in the US you’ve probably had it served with gyros.  I love it, it’s easy to make and a wonderful accompaniment to grilled lamb, pork, or chicken.  Many of our friends like it spread on a piece of pita bread.  One of the keys to making an excellent tzatziki is the yogurt; it needs to be thick.  Cucumber is very wet and will loosen the yogurt.  I always use Greek yogurt (Fage is my favorite but there are other good brands out there).

Ingredients
1 cup of thick plain yogurt
1 cucumber, medium to large, peeled and grated then chopped (note: your choice to leave or remove the seed core)
1 to 2 cloves of garlic, crushed and finely chopped (we like a lot of garlic)
1 to 1 1/2 tablespoons of olive oil
1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons fresh dill, finely chopped
1 teaspoon vinegar (white or wine; just remember if using wine vinegar to use white wine vineger not the red one; red gives it a pinkish hue)
salt to taste

Combine the ingredients in a bowl and mix by hand.  Refrigerate it for at least a couple of hours, and preferably overnight, before serving.

My tips

Most of my ingredients have ranges because there are so many variables – how much garlic do you like?  Are you using extra virgin olive oil or light olive oil?  Play around, make what you like.  Like so many other dishes, there is no one definitive recipe for tzatziki.

Cucumber  I like to peel the cucumber and then use the grating plate in my food processor.  Once finished I gently squeeze the gratings to release some excess water.  I don’t want to create a yougurt soup but I also don’t want to lose all the flavor.  I then take the gratings and chop them up.  I find this gives me the best texture.  Some people simply finely chop the cucumber without ever grating it.  Experiment and see what works best for you.

Garlic  There is no such thing as too much garlic, or at least for me.  You might disagree so  put in only as much as you feel comfortable adding the first time.

Yogurt  Growing up, when Greek yogurt wasn’t so readily available, my mother would take a large container of American yogurt, put a strainer over a large bowl, line the strainer with coffee filters (the Mr. Coffee bowl style ones worked best), and put the contents of the container in the lined strainer.  This went into the refrigerator.  She would periodically stir it to make sure it drained thoroughly and check that the bottom of the strainer wasn’t touching the liquid accumulating in the bowl.  A day or two later she would have this wonderfully thick yogurt and the bowl would have between 3/4 and 1 1/2 cups of liquid in it.

Why no photos?  We decided it was too nice out to go shopping so we put on our swimsuits and jumped in the pool, thus no cucumber.  It’s important to have one’s priorities!  Still, I thought you might like the recipe.  I’ll update the post with pictures in the future.

What about the dill burger?  Expect to learn more about the dill burger in my next post.  That’s one recipe that is hopefully lost in the annals of time.