Amp up this storied salad with a zesty dressing and homemade cheese
There’s something about fresh salads with a crunch and warm summer days that pair perfectly, and there might not be a better salad to pair with a bright sunny day than a classic Greek salad. Whether you’re looking for a light and refreshing meal or a colorful side dish, this staple salad is often taken for granted. But if you really want to impress, try making both the dressing and the cheese from scratch.
Unsurprisingly, the Greek salad originated in Greece, yet the one you find in Greek diners and mom-and-pop shops around the US bears only a slight resemblance to the salad of Greek origin. At the tail end of the 1800s, Greece was still recovering from a war with Turkey and struggling to recoup from a national bankruptcy, leaving most folks to lean heavily on vegetables rather than meats for sustenance. Villagers would collect onions, olives, cucumbers, tomatoes (which had just been introduced to Greece at the beginning of the 1800s), a little bread, and sometimes hunks of cheese, all wrapped in tablecloths and carried out to the fields for workers to sit and eat during their lunch breaks, dipping the ingredients in bowls of oil and oregano.
By the 1960s, the salad had become more composed and found its way onto a plate in the restaurants of Plaka, near Athens, bearing the name horiatiki, or “peasant salad.” Following waves of immigration, it made its way across the ocean, showing up in diners and Greek-owned restaurants in the US just a few years later. Somewhere in that evolution, some genius added lettuce and a particularly fragrant herb-laden dressing, and the modern Greek salad began to sprout and spread.
If you ask me, the two most important factors when making this particular style of Greek salad are the dressing and the cheese. There’s no need to buy packaged dressing when you likely have everything you need already sitting in your pantry. You just need a decent olive oil, red wine vinegar, a little Dijon mustard, dried oregano, and fresh garlic. I like to batch mine in a mason jar so that all I have to do is shake it and pour the dressing, and that way, it’s already in a jar for storing leftover dressing for another salad tomorrow.
If you intend to use store-bought feta, do yourself a favor and buy it in block form rather than the pre-crumbled stuff. The pre-crumbled kind is always dry and flavorless, and breaking down the block with your fingers into your own storage container at home gives you fresh, moist, and much tastier cheese. But if you want the absolute best, I suggest you make your own.
Believe it or not, making your own cheese is only slightly more complicated than whipping up a dressing, and again, you can likely do it with ingredients you already have on hand. While not as firm, dense, and salty as store-bought feta, the soft, crumbly texture and rich creamy flavor of homemade cheese is well worth the small amount of effort it entails.
This method of making cheese by hand is common throughout the Mediterranean, Middle East, and the world. In fact, if you leave out the salt, it’s nearly identical to the method many Indian families use when making paneer. In addition to using it as a salad topper, try frying cubes of it like paneer, or spreading it on toast with a little shaved tomato for an easy breakfast bite.
Greek Salad Recipe with Homemade Cheese
Makes 8–10 oz
- ½ gallon whole milk
- ½ cup fresh lemon juice
- Pour milk into a large pot and bring to a slow boil over medium-high heat. Stir regularly to ensure that it does not stick to the bottom of the pot and burn.
- Once it begins to bubble, remove from the heat and allow to cool for 3–5 minutes before giving it a single hefty stir and drizzling in the lemon juice. Be sure not to stir once the lemon juice has been added, as it will break down the curdles, and we want big curdles for this cheese. Let it sit off of the heat for 30–45 minutes.
- Using cheesecloth or a very fine mesh strainer, strain the contents of the pot, allowing the cloth/strainer to catch the curds and another pot or bowl to catch the whey (save that whey, as it is useful for cooking pasta, boiling potatoes, and a host of other home-spun activities). If using cheesecloth, tie all four corners together and hang the ball of cheese from a cabinet drawer over a bowl or over the sink, and allow it to drain. Let it strain for a full hour.
- Once drained, pour into a linen towel or large napkin, using the cloth to gently move the cheese around, breaking it up a little. Take this chance to lightly salt the cheese before forming it back into a ball and squashing flat onto a plate. Use another plate to press the cheese into a disc shape, roughly ½”–¾” thick, weigh down with a small book or similarly weighted object, and place in the fridge to cool for 30 minutes.
- Remove the top plate, and the cheese is ready to serve. Store in an airtight container for a firmer, crumbly cheese or in a container filled with generously salted leftover whey for a gooey, spreadable cheese.
Greek Salad Dressing
Makes ½ cup
- 4 Tbsp quality olive oil
- 3 Tbsp red wine vinegar
- 1–2 cloves garlic, crushed and minced
- ½ Tsp dried oregano
- ½ Tsp Dijon mustard
- Pinch of salt
- Pinch of black pepper
- Combine ingredients in a small mason jar.
- Serve, storing the leftover dressing in the mason jar in which it was mixed.
Note: Making the dressing a day in advance allows it to absorb a lot more flavor from the garlic and oregano, but it also works just fine when made immediately before service.
The Greek Salad
- 3 heads romaine lettuce, coarsely chopped
- 2 cups cherry tomatoes, halved
- 1 cup pitted Castelvetrano olives
- 1 large cucumber, chopped
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 1 (8oz) block feta cheese
- ½ cup Greek salad dressing
- Pinch of salt
- Pinch of black pepper
- In a large bowl, layer ingredients in the following order: freshly chopped lettuce, freshly chopped onions, freshly chopped cucumber, olives, halved tomatoes. If preparing ahead of time, store in the refrigerator for no more than 4 hours.
- Promptly before serving, crumble the feta cheese (as much or as little as you like) over the top of the salad.
- Pour the dressing over the whole salad and serve immediately, finishing with salt and pepper.