Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Seeking raw simplicity... & rediscovering the Greek salad

Today, two little things made me feel true joy and happiness, as if I could feel my whole being smiling: Pablo, bare feet, ate grapes from a grapevine, and drank from a natural fresh water spring. And this, of all places, happened in Greece, a place with which I have a difficult family history. Yet could happiness be that simple? Certainly seems naive from the outside.  But my theory is that if the enjoyment of simple things (one could also call them pure, or authentic things) is encoded in our brain somewhere, even from very early childhood, or perhaps especially from very early childhood, it remains an enjoyment we will be able to experience later in life. Or come back to, if we steer away from it. I guess the same theory goes with getting baby to taste simple / pure flavors when young, a simple single vegetable puree for example. Hopefully simplicity and purity of flavor, and of experience, remain in the brain as the reference, the standard of authenticity other things in our life get judged by.

Speaking of simplicity, let me rewind a few days back. Here we are, sitting by the port of the island of Tinos, fresh (or not so fresh) of a four hour ride from Athensport of Rafina. I am so happy to be here. My sister has organized everything and it’s wonderful to be led in complete trust and open-mindedness. I am ready to eat anything she’ll order, sleep anywhere she chooses, see anything she recommends. It’s going to be a wonderfully rich experience no matter what. We sit under grapevines. As Pablo discovers life without the high chair, he can walk around the table and be fed, as he checks in near my plate. I let it go, I’m too eager to savor the moment. The waiter brings the much anticipated Greek salad… Tomatoes, cucumber, pale green bell peppers, small red onions that look like shallots, black olives, a thick slice of Feta cheese sprinkled with dried oregano, with freshly pickled capers on top, and lots and lots of olive oil.  Along comes a loaf of thick Greek country bread.

 At home, we eat a “Greek salad” almost everyday, especially in heirloom tomato season. I love Feta cheese. We basically throw together tomatoes, cucumber, feta (I do get the blocks of sheep’s cheese feta), basil or oregano if we bother to go pick it in the backyard, and (Greek) olive oil. But it really pales in comparison with the authentic Greek salad we have enjoyed here.

Like the white walls and blue shutters bursting out of the arid landscape all over the Greek isles, every bite of this salad is a burst of flavor. The Feta is strong and salty, the onions even seem crunchier, the cucumber, juicier. The olive oil actually tastes of olives, and the capers… oh the capers, they’re the sleepers. So strong in flavor, but complementing perfectly the feta and tomatoes, they're the perfect substitute for vinegar in this salad. I can honestly say I don’t intend to ever buy capers in a jar in an American supermarket again. If only I can find a way to grow the plant and pickle them myself. They’re that good… This salad is the perfect combination of flavors and textures. Crunchy cucumber, peppers and onions (but in different ways), soft tomatoes, crumbly feta. Salty, tart, tangy, watery, sweet… You taste the sea, the sun, the salt in the air, the wind, the heat. In short, you taste Greece.

Traditional Greek Salad

Age for babies: I started giving tomatoes and Feta to Pablo as finger foods between 8 and 10 months, raw cucumber and bell peppers a bit later, about 12 months, because they're harder to chew.

Serves 4-6
5 large ripe tomatoes, quartered
2 cucumbers, peeled and sliced
2 small Greek onions, or shallots, sliced
3 green or yellow bell peppers, cored, seeds removed, and sliced
12 black kalamata olives
Freshly pickled capers (see if you can find them in a specialty grocery store or Greek shop, they're worth it!)
1 thick slice of sheep's milk Feta cheese
Fragrant dried oregano, or fresh oregano
Salt & pepper
Greek olive oil
Toss all the vegetables in a large salad bowl. Sprinkle some dried oregano on top of the slice of Feta and place on top of the salad.
Pour a fair amount of olive oil, and sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste.
Greek "paparra" tradition: Dip some country bread in the sauce directly in the bowl, it's the best!

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  1. I know what you mean, when it's in season, tomatoes jus can't be beat. and a simple greek salad, though simple, is just sublime with the right ingredients at the right time of the year. (have fun in greece! I'm back in sg myself for a month, and hopefully will get as inspired by the local cuisine as you have been!)

    1. Sorry for the late reply! Enjoy Singapore, nothing ever beats childhood food! Thanks for stopping by to comment and following me in my travels :-)

  2. I am looking forward to your return, would love to figure out to make capers as well. And have a recipe ... using Nasturtium buds for capers!!

    1. Hi Franka! Oh yes yes let's figure out how to grow and pickle those capers together! I'm bringing one jar back, we'll have to compare :-)


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