In early spring, horiatiki, or traditional Greek salad, starts appearing more often on Greek tables. It has very few ingredients – tomatoes, cucumbers, red onions, green bell peppers, sheep’s milk feta cheese, and Kalamata olives – and it’s dressed simply with extra virgin olive oil, red wine vinegar, and a pinch of salt and dried oregano. The key to keeping it uncomplicated is using seasonal, fresh ingredients that taste great all by themselves.
Serving fresh vegetables, cheese, and olives in their simplest form is one of the best ways to celebrate all of the work that went into growing and producing them. There are countless examples of Mediterranean salads similar to horiatiki that celebrate unprocessed ingredients, and there really is one for every occasion and season.
A year-round option for when you are low on fresh vegetables.
Bean and lentil salads are found in variations around the Mediterranean, and they are delicious served warm or cold. Lentil salads are especially easy because, unlike beans, lentils require no soaking and take little time to cook (20-40 minutes, depending on the type of lentil). If you’re in a hurry, canned beans and lentils will do the job. Extra virgin olive oil and lemon juice are a must, but if garlic, onions, carrots, bell peppers or minced herbs are available the salad will be all the more delicious.
Made for peak tomato season in late summer and early fall.
Caprese is a classic Italian salad made with fresh basil leaves, sliced mozzarella cheese, and sliced tomatoes. The ingredients are layered in a circle, sort of like an infinite Italian flag, and dressed with a splash of red wine vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper. Serve it with toasted whole wheat baguette slices to absorb the ripe tomato juice and olive oil.
A winter salad that adds color to the table.
Beet salad is a favorite in Greece, where they cook the entire beet plant (root, stems, leaves) and dress it lightly with olive oil and lemon juice. The only extra flavor comes from thinly sliced garlic, nutmeg, salt and pepper. Bitter beet greens are a selling point for many Greeks, who believe bitterness is cleansing and good for the blood. This isn’t just an old wives’ tale: there is evidence to support the cardiovascular health benefit of leafy greens.
Made almost year-round when you don’t want to let stale pita bread go to waste.
In its simplest form, Lebanese fattoush is made from toasted leftover pieces of pita bread, a bit of extra virgin olive oil, lots of lemon juice, and whatever vegetables are on hand. These days, cucumbers, tomatoes, radishes and green onions are usually added, along with fresh herbs like parsley or mint. In the Middle East, there is an entire class of foods called “fatta” that use leftover pita in innovative ways.
Great for when you need to use up fresh parsley and mint.
Tabbouleh is another delicious Lebanese salad made with lots of chopped parsley and mint, lemon juice, olive oil, onions, and a little bulgur wheat. If in season, tomatoes are a great addition too. Bulgur is sometimes referred to as “Middle Eastern pasta” for its versatility as a base for all sorts of dishes. It’s one of the quickest-cooking whole grain foods. Extra fine bulgur doesn’t even need to be cooked; it simply absorbs the liquid from the vegetables and dressing and is soft after about ten minutes.
The key to a great Mediterranean salad is using fresh, seasonal ingredients, and dressing them lightly (extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice or red wine vinegar, and a little salt and pepper). Good quality ingredients don’t need a lot of preparation.
That being said, out-of-season preserved vegetables (peppers, carrots, asparagus, mushrooms, etc.) and canned beans can make delicious salads without any fresh vegetables or herbs. Adding whole grains, nuts, cheese, fish, or poultry can turn them into complete, satisfying meals on their own. Make your own adaptation of the traditional salads listed above, or try one of the easy salad recipes below to get started.
Click on a title or photo below to go to the recipes. Main photo from fotolia.com.