When it is hot weather, simplicity is often the key; no-one wants to spend time making intricate creations over a hot stove when a beautiful sunny evening stretches out in front of you. Good food is often about balance; when it is blisteringly hot (admittedly more frequent in Greece than in England), your body needs salt and water to remain balanced and cope with the heat. This is why a Greek salad is such a brilliant invention; the water, and therefore refreshment, comes from the cucumber and tomatoes, while the salt and savouriness is given from the feta.
Greek salad is hardly an undiscovered dish; as with any food which is well known around the world it can be wonderful. It can also be truly awful. Large chunks of hard tomato with tasteless olives and little dressing do not a good Greek salad make. That’s why now is a great time to make this salad; British cucumbers are wonderful at the moment and amazing, local tomatoes are coming into their own. These simple, everyday ingredients add so much flavour. The temperature is also on the rise; this is the perfect supper for warm nights and lazy afternoons.
A huge amount of the appeal of a Greek salad comes from the intensely salty feta cheese. Generally, it is made with sheep’s milk, but it can be made with goat or a combination of the two. The better fetas are aged (but not ripened) 4 to 6 weeks, cured in a salty whey and brine and it becomes sharper and saltier with age. It is creamy white in colour with small holes, a crumbly texture and a spiky, rich creamy taste which is quite unique. Brands can taste very different and you may need to try a few before you find the one you like; it should be punchy, salty and mouthwateringly creamy in flavour whichever one you choose. In this dish, I have used the feta as part of the dressing, rather than simply plonking a slab of it on top of the salad. It works incredibly well, as it coats every mouthful with a rich silkiness while still being wonderfully refreshing.
There are not many ingredients in this salad, so take a little time to pick the best you can. I like small plum tomatoes but any type with a great flavour will work well. I also like olives stored in oil which are not stoned. I find the flavour is better if the stones are left in; just make sure you remind people before they start to eat to avoid any dental disasters. A good, peppery extra virgin olive oil is also essential. Oh, and make sure you check the date of your dried herbs; people tend to think that dried herbs last forever (a certain relative of mine, who will remain nameless, has dried thyme in their cupboard with a use-by date on of March 2001). Dried herbs will not go off or bad, but over time they will lose a lot of their potency and flavour. If you use dried herbs that are more than a year old, you may have to use double the amount to get the same hit of flavour. If they are older than two years, you will generally get more flavour into your dish by using the contents of the hoover bag.
Personally, I am not a fan of raw onion in anything. In this recipe, I soak the slices of raw onion in the vinegar beforehand. In doing this, the onion loses all it acrid burn and overpowering aftertaste while becoming more delicate, fragrant and still slightly crunchy. Doing this also turns the onions a beautiful translucent pink. However, if you like your onions with a bit more bite, please feel free to leave them as they are.
This salad is best served as soon as it ready, but if it needs to stand a little while, remove the watery core of the cucumber before you chop it and do not add any salt until just before you serve it to avoid a watery puddle of dressing at the bottom of the bowl.
Clearly, a recipe such as this should be eaten on a deserted beach, under an umbrella on a shimmeringly hot day. Not really likely in London, but we can dream.
Greek Salad with Feta Dressing
200g feta (one packet/block)
2 whole cucumbers
1 red onion
500g tomatoes at room temperature
about 40 black olives-preferably Kalamata
6 tbs extra virgin olive oil
100ml red wine vinegar
1 tbs dried mint
2 tbs dried oregano
salt and pepper to taste
Chop the onions into thin half moon crescents, place in a bowl and pour over the vinegar. leave to soak for at least half an hour, stirring occasionally.
Now make the dressing. Pour the olive oil into a bowl and add 2 tbs of the vinegar from the onions, crumble the feta into the bowl and mix well so the feta starts to meld into the dressing. It will not all melt in, but the dressing will look creamier, with small shards of feta in it. Now add the mint and oregano. Taste and add more herbs if necessary.
Chop the cucumber into bite size chunks, halve the tomatoes. Place in a large bowl with the olives and drained red onion. Pour over the dressing and mix very well. Taste and add black pepper and salt if needed. Add more oregano or more onion vinegar if you wish.
Serve with warm pitta or flat bread.