Marcus has covered food for Newsday since 1998.
What is in a true Greek salad?
If you travel around Greece, you'll find exactly two green salads on almost every restaurant menu: horiatiki salata and maroulosalata.
Horiatiki salata (country or village salad) is what you get if you ask, in English, for "Greek salad." It is tomato, cucumber and green pepper, maybe some scallions or red onion sprinkled with dried oregano and drizzled with olive oil. On top of this there may well be a slab of feta cheese. There could be one black olive wedged into the cheese, or a few situated around the plate. You might get half a lemon. You will not get vinegar.
You want lettuce? You must order lettuce salad, maroulosalata. Maroulo is Greek for romaine, and when I was in Greece a few years ago, I saw nothing but romaine, nor was it ever torn or served as whole leaves. It was neatly shredded into ribbons anywhere from 1/4 to 3/8 inch thick. Sometimes there would be some thinly sliced scallions for good measure. The fanciest maroulosalata I had also had chopped fresh dill. Dressing? Olive oil, and squeeze your own lemon.
Greek salad on Long Island is, all too often, an unholy marriage of cucumbers, onions, pickled peppers, unripe tomatoes, iceberg lettuce and way too much crumbled feta (or a cheese purporting to be feta). Most egregiously, it will lack what is arguably the most important element of any Greek salad: delicious, pungent, fruity Greek extra-virgin olive oil. The oil isn't there to lubricate the vegetables, it is there to flavor them.
How well I can still recall eating the two Greek salads pictured here. I was in the Peloponnese, near the town of Kalamata -- where the famous olives come from. If you are served olive oil in Greece, it will generally be of very high quality. Over here, you need to expend a little effort to find a good oil, but ethnic grocers (from any Mediterranean country), specialty markets and even some supermarkets will have what you need. Look for an extra-virgin oil that was produced within the calendar year, or one whose "best if used by" date is at least two years in the future. A Greek oil would be most appropriate here, but any assertive oilwould work just fine.
COUNTRY SALAD (HORIATIKI)
Don't bother to make this salad with unripe tomatoes.
3 to 5 large tomatoes, cut into bite-size pieces
1 large green pepper, seeded and cut into strips
1 medium or 2 small cucumbers, cut into rounds
1 medium red onion, cut in half and then into thin slices
Feta cheese (optional)
Best quality extra-virgin olive oil
Dried Greek oregano (it really makes a difference)
Place tomatoes, pepper, cucumber and onion on a serving platter. Sprinkle generously with salt. If using feta, place a whole slab or small cubes on top of the vegetables. Pour a couple of good glugs of olive oil over everything, then sprinkle on the oregano. Garnish with olives and serve with lemon. Makes 4 to 6 servings.
ROMAINE SALAD (MAROULOSALATA)
1 large head romaine lettuce
1/4 cup chopped fresh dill
Salt and pepper
Best quality extra-virgin olive oil
3 lemons, cut in half
1. Tear off any wilted or spotted outer leaves from the romaine. Place head on a cutting board and, starting at tip, slice into ribbons about 1/4 inch wide. Wash and thoroughly spin dry the lettuce.
2. After peeling off any dried or limp layers, line up the scallions on a cutting board. Slice off the bases, and then thinly slice the white portions and about half the green portions.
3. Place lettuce ribbons, scallions and chopped dill in large bowl. Season with salt and pepper and drizzle with olive oil. Toss well and serve on individual plates, each with a lemon half. Makes 6 servings.