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Traditional Greek Salads

Love at the Greek salad bowl can be easy in Australia

What cheese would I put in a Greek salad? Should it include lettuce? Is there a recipe for a Greek salad? These are some of the questions I am often asked. The list of Greek salads is endless. But there is no such thing as a typical Greek salad. Every region and every village, has its own special combinations of the season. The cheese is fetta cheese but it is optional. Most of the Greeks I know do not use it as it is a restaurant rather than a family tradition.

Unable to find a definition of a traditional Greek salad, I created one. It is a dish of an appropriate combination of vegetables of the season, dressed with olive oil (called virgin nowadays) and salt. Usually the dressing includes lemon juice or vinegar, onion or garlic and herbs such as dry or fresh mint and dry oregano. Other typical salads are made with cooked vegetables and / or legumes.

The secret of a good salad lies in the combination of vegetables, the dressing ingredients and most importantly, the thorough mixing.

The equipment:
You need a small sharp knife, a deep bowl and a large spoon and fork for mixing and serving. The chopping board is missing, not because the printer left it out… traditionally, salads are chopped by hand directly into the bowl. Vegetables like tomato, potato and beetroot mix better if chopped by hand. It is also easier to check for bugs. I find it quicker and less messy. With a little practice and normal safety precautions, the risk of cutting yourself is not higher than when using a chopping board.

The dressing:
Virgin olive oil is a basic ingredient for all Greek salads. Avoid any other oil or mixture of oils. Experience will tell you how much oil to use. Too much gives an unpleasant oily taste while too little does not give a good flavour. One or two tablespoons might be an appropriate quantity for a small salad.

Vinegar goes better with some vegetables, such as lettuce, while lemon is more appropriate for others, such as cabbage. Tomato is better without lemon or vinegar. These are not, however, strict rules. The onion or garlic is diced but not necessarily finely.

After all the dressing ingredients have been added on top of the chopped vegetables, mix well with a large spoon and fork. Mix thoroughly so that the dressing goes all around the vegetables. Every ingredient, small or large, must get a shine.

The eating:
Salads can be eaten for a light meal on their own with bread and olives or with cheese or legumes or meat or fish or dips for a substantial meal.

The traditional bread (sourdough) goes well with all Greek salads, and for maximum flavour and nutritional value it must be dipped into the salad’s juices. This juice is full of nutrients and it is wasteful not to use it. It is not unusual for Greek children to fight over the tomato salad juice. I was one who did.

The recipes:
The following recipes are only some examples of the endless number of Greek salads. Your taste and preference should make the decision. However, Italians or other Mediterranean ethnic groups can claim this salad-making procedure and combinations. Note that, in Greek style, oil refers to virgin olive oil.

For Spring/Summer:
Broad bean leaf tops, spring onions, lettuce, oil and vinegar. Potatoes (boiled), radish, celery, a handful of purslane (yes, I mean purslane the garden weed), oil, diced onion and garlic, lemon and finely chopped Italian parsley. Tomato, cucumber, diced onion and oil. Tomato, cucumber, celery, onion, dried or fresh mint, oil and perhaps a little lemon or vinegar. Tomato, boiled potatoes, celery, garlic, radishes and their tender leaves, diced onion and garlic, oil and a little lemon. (Home grown tomatoes give a much better flavour.)

For Autumn/Winter:
Cabbage on its own or with celery, oil and plenty of lemon. Cabbage, celery, shredded carrot, oil and lemon. While I claim that onion and garlic do not go with cabbage many will disagree. Rocket and/or coriander, a little tomato, if still in season, diced onion, oil and lemon. Lettuce, diced onion, oil and vinegar.

From: The Age, Tuesday, January 5, 1988 – with amendments.

The traditional Mediterranean Diet

The traditional Mediterranean diet (i.e. the diet of this region before the 1960’s) is promoted as healthy and protective against disease. The Greek diet is regarded as the prototype Mediterranean diet. Traditionally, due to their dietary and lifestyle practices, the Greeks have very good health and life expectancy – without an expensive health care system. In Greece, the people of the island of Crete have a better health record and perhaps not surprisingly, the highest consumption of olive oil (25 litres per capita) in the world.

The Greek traditional diet is based largely on fresh, unprocessed seasonal plant foods. It is low in saturated fat and high in dietary fibre, starch, antioxidant vitamins (from cereals, fruit and vegetables) and polyphenols (from wine and olive oil).