When I embarked on my trip to Greece last week, I knew I'd be documenting the heck out of it, and when I landed in Athens, the first thing I did was order a Greek salad, take notes, and snap it with my iPhone. It was beautiful: ripe red tomatoes from Crete, substantial chunks of feta cheese, perfectly sweet raw purple onions, and lots of fragrant olive oil and dried oregano. Seemed familiar, and yet I relished in the experience of consuming these simple ingredients on foreign soil. Of course it's better there, I thought to myself.
"I'll document all of the Greek salads I eat!" Spoken like a true American. Then I got to the Island of Kea, my final destination, and met my host, Aglaia Kremezi, who set me straight about What Is a Greek Salad.
Aglaia told me that what we call a "Greek Salad" is made up for tourists. What is truly Greek about a salad is the way it uses what is available depending on region and season. What you have right here is good old peasant cooking. Horiatiki (peasant) salad has tomatoes if they are vine-ripened and fresh, onions, garden vegetables like cucumber and hot or mild peppers, and greens like purslane, arugula, and Romaine in winter. It's topped with feta or any other kind of local cheese (and there is no shortage of non-feta cheese in Greece), olives, and something pickled, like capers. The dressing is simple: fruity olive oil and dried oregano. The salad sometimes has cured or salty fish like sardines or anchovies, and paximadia (barley rusks), a Greek take on croutons.
Paximadi (plural 'paximadia') is a barley rusk; an exclusively Greek twice-baked, molar-crushing biscuit, which was for centuries the staple snack for islanders and sailors in the parts of Greece where wheat was difficult to grow and wood for firing the oven was scarse. Paximadia need to be soaked briefly in liquid to soften, otherwise you may break your teeth trying to bite into them. In the case of this salad, they are soaked in the juices of ripe tomatoes.
During the week I spent at her culinary school on this remote island, we made many salads, but none approximated the Greek salad you might think of when I say Greek Salad. I had to seek those out in local tavernas. It turned out Aglaia was holding back for the final night when, as the sun set on an empty beach, we grilled fresh sardines and draped them over a Paximadi salad. It was a warm May evening... our toes were peeking out over the high-dive rock of summer and there was so much possibility ahead.
Most summers I'm all about Panzanella, sometimes I lean toward Fattoush, but this summer, I'm jumping in as a Paximadi girl.
Paximadi Bread Salad with Tomatoes, Feta and Capers
Adapted from Aglaia Kremezi's Mediterranean Hot and Spicy (Broadway Books)
4 cups paximadia in bite-size pieces (see Recipe Note)
2 pounds summer ripe and firm tomatoes that have not been refrigerated (big or small, any color or a combination of different heirloom tomatoes)
1 large white onion, thinly sliced
3-4 tablespoons capers, drained
1 cup purslane leaves (optional)
1/2 cup basil leaves torn to pieces with the fingers, or coarsely chopped tender flat-leaf parsley, or a combination of parsley and fresh oregano or thyme
2 1/2 cups diced feta cheese
1 tablespoon dry Greek oregano
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar, or to taste
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil, or more
2-3 pickled peperoncini or chilies, minced (optional)
Zest of 1 non-treated lemon (optional)
Freshly ground pepper, to taste
Salt, to taste
Spread the paximadia at the bottom of a salad bowl or container. Using serrated knife, slice the tomatoes into roughly 1 1/2–inch pieces and scatter them over the paximadia, letting the juices penetrate the bread. Arrange the onion rings and purslane (if using) over the tomatoes, sprinkle the capers and basil, or other herbs, over the onions. Top with the feta and sprinkle with the oregano.
In a bowl, whisk together the vinegar and olive oil. Add the chilies and lemon zest (if using), along with a few cracks of black pepper and some salt — keeping in mind that capers and feta are quite salty so you may not need extra.
Cover the bowl with a kitchen towel and let stand for one hour in a cool place. If you won't serve it within the hour and the weather is hot, let the salad rest in the refrigerator. Toss thoroughly just before serving.
- You can substitute stale whole-wheat sourdough or any other heavy chewy bread for the paximadia. You are basically making big croutons. Cut the bread into thick slices, dice and toast in the oven to dry.
- To break the hard paximadia into pieces, wrap in a clean tea towel and beat with a pestle or rolling pin. Add the pieces and crumbs to the salad.
(Images: Sara Kate Gillingham-Ryan)