I crave this salad all summer long. My first real deal, completely authentic Greek Salad experience occurred in 2009 when Gavin and I traveled to Crete. We stayed just outside Chania, a small town on the northern coast. Chania is stunningly beautiful. Hot sunshine, turquoise waters, rugged mountains, ancient ruins, a beautiful Venetian harbor and incredible food.
We stayed in a little self-catering apartment complex complete with an on site taverna. We ate in other tavernas in Old Town Chania, but the food in that little restaurant was just as good, if not better. We always started our meal with a small bowl of tzatziki and a few nibbles. This was followed by grilled chicken or lamb souvlaki, served with pita bread and a very delicious potato salad heavily dressed in lemon juice and extra virgin olive oil.
What really stands out in my memory is the Greek Salad I had for lunch. It was unlike any Greek Salad I’ve ever eaten. The salad was full of locally grown, sweet, sun-ripened tomatoes and cucumbers. Thankfully, there was not a trace of cheap iceberg lettuce. The meaty, deep purple kalamata olives added a rich fruitiness. The salad was dressed with a local Cretan extra virgin olive oil, a splash of red wine vinegar and a generous pinch of dried oregano. The salad was topped with a large slab of creamy, tangy feta cheese. It was one of the best dishes I’ve ever eaten and I’ve been obsessed with re-creating it ever since.
I mustered up the courage to ask Andreas, the owner, for a few of his recipes one night during dinner. He looked at me like I had lost my mind. The answer I got was “a little of this” and “a little of that.” Cooking by intuition. I don’t know why I was so offended, when in actuality that’s how I cook most of the time. I just desperately wanted to replicate those flavors at home.
I know my salad will never taste quite like it did in Chania, especially with my English tomatoes. However, I always make it in the peak of summer and buy the very best ingredients I can find, including olive oil from Crete and real Kalamata olives. The end result is pretty close.
One of the first things I do is slice the red onion as thinly as possible. The slices are then soaked in a large bowl of ice water with a good pinch of salt for about 15 minutes.
This is a great tip for any dishes or salads that contain raw red onion. The soak in the ice water removes most of the spicy bitterness, leaving you with onion that is sweeter and much more palatable.
I also chop my cucumber in half moons. It stands up better to the juices from the tomatoes, oil and vinegar when chopped like this. It can get a bit soggy otherwise.
A quick word on the feta cheese. I usually prepare the salad the way it was served to me in Crete with a slab of feta on top. I love how it looks and I’m immediately transported back to that little patio in the Taverna by the pool.
You can certainly chop the feta in large bite-sized pieces and mix it in with the rest of the salad. Just beware that the feta may take on the color of the red wine vinegar and tomato juices as it sits.
I’d also recommend a feta cheese that’s been produced in Greece and made from sheep’s milk only.
I’ve left the quantities up to you in the “recipe” below, because this is nothing more than chopping a few ingredients and adding a splash of oil and vinegar. I leave the quantity and mix of ingredients up to you and your personal taste, because that’s what I was advised to do by Andreas.
Just make sure you’ve got sweet tomatoes, genuine Kalamata olives and real Greek feta cheese. A good fruity Cretan olive oil won’t hurt either. Don’t let any lettuce near that plate and you’re practically in the Greek Islands. I hope you love this beautiful salad as much as I do.
- Tomatoes, the sweetest and juiciest you can find
- English cucumber
- Red onion
- Greek Kalamata olives, pitted
- A mix of fresh green herbs, such as dill, mint and parsley
- Red wine vinegar
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- Feta cheese
- Dried oregano
*Note: I've left the quantities up to you. It really depends on your personal taste and the balance you prefer between all of the ingredients. Taste as you go along!
- Start by peeling and slicing the red onion. I prefer very, very thin half moons.
- Fill a small bowl with ice water and a pinch of salt. Add the red onion slices and leave to soak for 15 minutes.
- Meanwhile, chop the tomatoes and cucumber. Slice large cherry tomatoes in half or slice bigger ones in wedges. I prefer to chop my cucumber in half moons, but use whatever shape you prefer. For half moons, slice the cucumber in half vertically, then remove the seeds by scraping down the center with a small tea spoon. Slice horizontally into bite-sized pieces (see photos in post).
- Drain the red onion and dry the slices between two paper towels.
- Combine chopped tomatoes, cucumber and red onion in a large bowl. Add the kalamata olives and gently toss.
- Add a generous glug of extra virgin olive oil and good splash of red wine vinegar. Season with salt and pepper and stir well.
- Roughly chop a good handful of fresh green herbs. I usually use dill and mint. Add the herbs to the salad and gently toss. Taste and adjust seasonings as needed.
- Transfer the salad to a serving bowl (or individual plates or bowls). Place a large, thin slice of feta on top. Garnish with a generous pinch of dried oregano and a drizzle of olive oil.
*Salad can be made a couple of hours before serving. Store in the fridge and add the feta and garnishes before serving. You can also chop the feta in large cubes and add it directly to the salad.