Salad Days

Salad Days

Three skinny feral cats have fallen in love with my wife and follow her everywhere like a retinue of tiny servants. It might be Wendy’s personality or it might be her habit of opening tins of tuna for them twice a day. I bought some lamb chops on Thursday, intending to barbecue them. While the black and the white cats struck flamboyantly distracting poses in the courtyard to the delight of all, the grey tabby pulled the bag of meat off the kitchen counter, tore it open and ravaged the cutlets. To the victors the spoils. The cats ate the raw meat in the garden, away from the wasps.

Those lamb chops were the first meat we had bought all summer. Obviously, the tutelary spirits that govern food shopping in these parts disapproved of the carnivorous gesture. “Stick to veggies, mate,” is their hymn. Perhaps they worry that meat will disturb the torpor induced by temperatures of 104—for aestivation (in its zoological rather than botanical sense (obviously)) is here the order of the day.

Salads are central to our lives—as they are to the Greek culinary lexicon everywhere—which isn’t surprising given the quality of local seasonal vegetables. The range isn’t huge—lettuces, artichokes and peas are creatures of the springtime and therefore impossible to find. There are some cultivated mushrooms (field and oyster) but they are for the tourists. Locals prefer wild mushrooms found in the late autumn. No wild greens in the height of summer—and no beetroots to boil and chop with handfuls of fresh parsley and vinegar. We have zucchini and aubergines, and my koubaros, Philip, makes a dazzling cabbage salad by chopping it and an onion very finely then sousing it in his own wine vinegar. He then squeezes it between his hands over the sink, wringing the vinegar out of it, and dresses it with salt and olive oil.

Tomatoes and cucumbers and peppers of all kinds are at their best right now, to chop coarsely together. People here don’t tend to mix olives and feta with them, as they do in restaurants. They serve the olives separately (and reverently) and feta rinsed in water to reduce the salinity, patted dry, sliced on a plate and dressed with olive oil and oregano. Philip also gave me a big bag of his fabulous green beans. I shredded and blanched them so they still had some crunch to them, mixed them up with some raw sweet onion, the sweet flesh of an orange and a lemon, some toasted pine nuts and a dressing spiked with paprika. It was a good salad, to be sure.

The dressing is always an important part of the salad process, of course, especially here, where the ingredients are of a uniformly high standard. In restaurants, customers are given a cruet of olive oil, wine vinegar, salt and pepper and expected to do the work themselves—by far the safest way in a country of aggressively individualistic people. When the restaurant tries to show off, disaster can strike. Cooks feel the need to do something ostentatiously different, even if it’s simply smothering the entire bowl of vegetables in a “rose” sauce of ketchup and mayonnaise. On Wednesday, while Philip and I dug into impeccably fried anchovies at a good restaurant down by the sea, Wendy ordered the “chef’s salad.” She was expecting mustard greens but the mustard involved was French’s from a bottle—about a cup of it, yellow as sulphur—squirted neat onto lettuce, crunchy corn kernels, cucumber and tomato. Inedible. But you can’t win them all.

Talking of the world’s great bounty, I hope I’m back in Toronto in time to taste the many heirloom and boutique vegetables that Tawfik Shehata, chef of Vertical, is growing in his 3500-square-foot vegetable garden on Toronto Island and putting on his menus for all to enjoy. Such a fine idea.